As the confessional Protestant churches understood the Scriptures, the only universal revelation to all persons in all times is the natural revelation of God and of his moral law. This natural law was insufficient to save anyone but it was sufficient to leave all humans without excuse before the tribunal of God. This is how we understand Paul’s teaching in Romans 1:18–23:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things (ESV).
and in Romans 2:12–16:
For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus (ESV).
Paul’s point in both passages is to say that what the Jews received at Sinai in the Ten Words (the Decalogue) or the Ten Commandments, in the moral law, all image-bearers (humans) have by nature in their conscience. By nature, we all know God legally but not graciously, i.e., not savingly.
The Importance Of The Administration Of The Gospel
This is one reason why the external administration of the gospel is so vitally important. This reality lies behind the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:19–20; ESV). Put in covenantal terms, everyone knows the terms of the covenant of works: “do this and live” (Luke 10:28) but not everyone knows the terms of the covenant of grace: “for God loved sinners (κόσμον) so much that he gave his only begotten Son so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). That message, that God the Son became incarnate in the womb of the virgin, that he obeyed in the place of his people, that he suffered, died, was buried, was raised, and is ascended and seated at the right hand of the Father is not revealed in nature. It is revealed in Scripture. The gospel is not in the stars. The gospel must be announced to every creature and it is through gospel proclamation that God the Spirit is pleased to bring his people to new life (regeneration) and to true faith in Jesus (Rom 10:14–21).
This is the theological background of the next three articles under the fifth head of the Canons of Dort. In this sense, the Synod of Dort was just as much a missionary assembly as it was a theological assembly. Remember, some of the Remonstrants were arguing that it was not necessary for the gospel to go to the ends of the earth, that those who never heard would be able to deduce enough from nature to be saved. They were universalists. This is an attractive position because it seems relieve the problem of God’s justice but it is not a biblical solution. It is rather a form of rationalism, placing human reason above divine revelation. The Christian conviction is that Jesus was unequivocal when he said, “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Rationalists of various sorts had long suggested two tracks of salvation, one through faith in Jesus and one through natural reason (e.g., for the Greek philosophers) but God the Son did not become incarnate merely to save some of the elect. To say that it is possible to reason from nature to salvation is an attack on the incarnation and righteous, obedient death and the resurrection of Christ. It is an attack on the very essence of Christianity.
In response to the Remonstrants, Synod confessed that it is not we who are sovereign over the administration of the gospel and salvation but rather it is God who is free in his administration of them:
In the Old Testament, God revealed this secret of his will to a small number; in the New Testament (now without any distinction between peoples) he discloses it to a large number. The reason for this difference must not be ascribed to the greater worth of one nation over another, or to a better use of the light of nature, but to the free good pleasure and undeserved love of God. Therefore, those who receive so much grace, beyond and in spite of all they deserve, ought to acknowledge it with humble and thankful hearts; on the other hand, with the apostle they ought to adore (but certainly not inquisitively search into) the severity and justice of God’s judgments on the others, who do not receive this grace (Canons of Dort 3/4.7).
Why did God not send the gospel to everyone during Job’s time period, during the Abrahamic epoch, or under Moses and David? Worse, God not only withheld the gospel from most of the world during the period of types and shadows he also sent his people to war against “the nations” (the Gentiles). Think of all the —ites whom Yahweh Elohim told his people to destroy. In Genesis 15:16 he told Abram that the Israelites must be in captivity for 400 years “because the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full.” Cue the ominous music.
Ironically, it was the Remonstrants who tried to put God in a box. They set up a system whereby once one met the conditions God was obligated to honor that. The Reformed churches rejected that attempt to turn the faith on its head. God is sovereign and free. He acts justly according to his nature but it is he alone who determines where the gospel of salvation goes and to whom.
It was God’s sovereign will to limit the disclosure of his salvation under the Old Testament (everything from Gen 1:1 to Mal 4:6) and especially under the Old Covenant (i.e., under Moses, the Davidic Kingdom, and the Exile). Arguably, the pattern of revelation and redemption becomes increasingly narrow as we move from Noah, through Abraham, to Moses, then to David, to the Kings, and finally to the exile. Think of a funnel. It is broad at one and narrow at the other. The thread of redemption runs throughout the story but it does not open up again until the New Testament. The book of Acts is the story of inclusion. The gospel of the resurrection of Jesus and justification through faith alone in Christ alone is to be announced in Judea, Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth (Acts 1:8). The New Testament is like the opposite of the Old Testament funnel. The narrow end meets the Old Testament and the wide is headed toward the book of Acts.
Election Is Still Unconditional
God did not choose Israel (out of all the —ites) because of anything inherent in them. Deuteronomy 7:7–8 says exactly the opposite:
It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt (Deut 7:7–8; ESV).
No one deserves to hear the gospel but God does, in his providence, nevertheless, freely send the gospel where he will to save whom he will.
The Offer Of The Gospel Is Free And Well-Meant
This does not make us lazy. Rather, it energizes the mission of the gospel in Christ’s church:
Nevertheless, all who are called through the gospel are called seriously. For seriously and most genuinely God makes known in his Word what is pleasing to him: that those who are called should come to him. Seriously he also promises rest for their souls and eternal life to all who come to him and believe (Canons of Dort 3/4.8).
When we preach the gospel, we offer Christ to all. We call all image bearers to trust in him and to repent. This is, as we say, a “serious” (serio) call. It is a genuine call. We speak this way because we do not know whom God has elected and because we do not believe that God has ordained conditions to be met rather than an elect to be saved. We preach Christ freely to all, we make a well-meant offer to all, precisely because we are convinced it is through this offer that God calls his elect. It is not our business to try to do the work of the Holy Spirit. It is our business to pray that God would use the preached Word, to preach, and to trust the Spirit to do his mysterious work through the message of the gospel.
The gospel is good news. It promises rest for weary souls. The Remonstrants had turned the Christian message into a conditional message of works: God will accept you if you meet the following conditions. This was fundamentally a legal message. They tried to turn the covenant of grace (“I will be your God”) into a covenant of works (“I will be your God if you meet the following conditions”).
Not everyone who hears the gospel comes to faith. There are reasons for this. Everyone who hears the gospel is, by nature, dead in sins and trespasses. It is not the case that everyone has been endowed (as the Remonstrants said with “common grace”—which is quite different from the Reformed doctrine of common grace) so that they have “within themselves” as the medieval Franciscans had said, the ability to meet the conditions.
God has not elected everyone to salvation. We may be sure that Judas was not elect. In Scripture he is the prototypical reprobate. We know that God hated Esau (Acts 1:25; Mal 1:3; Rom 9:13).
The fact that many who are called through the ministry of the gospel do not come and are not brought to conversion must not be blamed on the gospel, nor on Christ, who is offered through the gospel, nor on God, who calls them through the gospel and even bestows various gifts on them, but on the people themselves who are called. Some in self-assurance do not even entertain the Word of life; others do entertain it but do not take it to heart, and for that reason, after the fleeting joy of a temporary faith, they relapse; others choke the seed of the Word with the thorns of life’s cares and with the pleasures of the world and bring forth no fruits. This our Savior teaches in the parable of the sower (Matt. 13) (Canons of Dort 3/4.9.
The gospel is sufficient. The Christ whom we announce in the gospel is sufficient for all. When our Lord considered this problem he blamed the soil not the seed nor the sower:
When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty” (Matt 13:19–23; ESV)
The fault lies in the soil. Some soils are rocky and others are full of thistles yet God is able to save all whom he will. The blame rests on the reprobate. How can that be, you ask? Who can resist his will?
You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? (Rom 9:19–24; ESV)
We lack standing to sue God for injustice.
If you believe, give thanks to God for his mercy to sinners. Give thanks for his immeasurable free favor. Praise Christ for his righteous obedience. Praise the Spirit for opening your eyes. Praise the Father for loving you, in Christ, from all eternity and pray for those whom you know and whom you do not know, who do not confess faith in Christ, that the Spirit would soften their hearts to hear and believe the gospel and that the Lord would send ministers to the ends of the earth to proclaim the Good News to all his image bearers.
This essay quoted the Canons of Dort as translated and published by the United Reformed Churches in North America, 2018.
Resources On The Free Offer Of The Gospel
—R. Scott Clark, Escondido.