Geerhardus Vos on the Sincere Free Offer of the Gospel

The Scriptural Doctrine of the Love of God, from The Presbyterian and Reformed Review, 13:1-37, 1902

p. 3

The old [correct] theology was exceedingly careful in marking off these kinds and degrees [of love] from one another, and in assigning to each the group of objects upon which it operates.  The primordial love which is exchanged between the three persons of the adorable Trinity was distinguished from the ectypical love which goes out toward the creature.  Within the latter, the general benevolence extending toward all sentient beings was separated from the specific affection God cherishes for intelligent beings made in his image.  [Greek] Terms like ‘philoktisia’ and ‘philanthropia’ were employed in order to facilitate the proper recognition of these lines of distinction.  And again, within the limits of the divine affection for angels and men, notice was taken of the difference necessarily created by the physical, moral, and spiritual conditions under which the love of God finds and contemplates its objects.  Above all, the supreme soteriological manifestation of this love, rising in its absoluteness and sovereignty above every possibility of being either originated or checked or extinguished by aught in the creature, and particularly belonging to the sphere of the elect, was upheld in its uniqueness over against all other manifestations of a conditioned and more common character.  

p. 13

But the question may further be put, whether, besides in this national and qualitative sense, our Lord also taught the universality of the love of God in the numerical sense of appropriating it to every individual man.  The answer to this requires careful discrimination.  It must be admitted that what the Old Testament used to call the goodness of Jehovah, in the sphere of natural life, is drawn by our Lord within the circle of God’s love.  In commanding the disciples to love their enemies He lays at the basis of this duty the example of the heavenly Father, who makes His sun to rise upon the evil and the good and sends rain on the just and the unjust.  Although this benevolent attitude toward mankind universally is not explicitly called love, the reasoning implies that it may be correctly so designated.  The more abstract form of New Testament truth opened the way for employing the terms in a wider sense than had been possible with the Old Testament conception, from which the thought of marriage or fatherhood was practically inseparable.  Undoubtedly, by thus emphasizing the universality of common grace and making it flow from the love of God, our Lord sought a point of contact for the approaching universalism of the gospel.  That God loves the world in its natural existence, even outside the sphere of the covenant, contains a pledge of the bestowal upon the same world of an infinitely higher redemptive love.

For it should be observed, in the second place, that the work of redemption itself bears in our Lord’s representation a broad cosmical character.  This is true already of the Synoptical teaching.  Especially the doctrine of the kingdom in its eschatological aspect clearly reveals that the divine love sets for its goal not the saving of isolated individuals out of the world, but the salvation of the world as an organic whole.  The coming of the kingdom in glory will bring a ‘palingenesia’ [rebirth] of the universe.  But it is especially in the Johannine discourses, with their characteristic method of unfolding truth in its large fundamental aspects, that the principle in question is brought out with great distinctness.  It is here that the statements occur, “God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son,” [John 3:16] and “God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.” [John 3:17]  Christ is called the light of the world, and the Savior of the world.  He gives His flesh and His blood for the life of the world.  From the nature of the case, however, this cosmical love, though in certain of its effects pertaining to every man, does not permit in its absolute sense of being individualized.  It involves a purpose to save the world organically, not a purpose to save every person in the world individually.  

p. 14

There is, however, still a third sense, in which Jesus leads us to ascribe universality to the divine love.  This is done not so much in explicit form as by the implications of His attitude toward sinful men in general.  We must never forget that our Lord was the divine love incarnate, and that consequently what He did, no less than what He taught, is a true revelation adapted to shed light on our problem.  If the Son of God was filled with tender compassion for every lost human soul, and grieved even over those whose confirmed unbelief precluded all further hope of salvation, it is plain that there must be in God something corresponding to this.  In the parable of the prodigal son the father is represented as continuing to cherish a true affection for his child during the period of the latter’s estrangement.  It would be hardly in accord with our Lord’s intention to press the point that the prodigal was destined to come to repentance, and that, therefore, the father’s attitude toward him portrays the attitude of God toward the elect only, and not toward every sinner as such.  We certainly have a right to say that the love which God originally bears toward man as created in His image survives in the form of compassion under the reign of sin.  This being so, when the sinner comes in contact with the gospel of grace, it is natural for God to desire that he should accept its offer and be saved.  We must even assume that over against the sin of rejection of the gospel this love continues to assert itself, in that it evokes from the divine heart sincere sorrow over man’s unbelief.  But this universal love should be always so conceived as to leave room for the fact that God, for sovereign reasons, has not chosen to bestow upon its objects that higher love which not merely desires, but purposes and works out the salvation of some.  It may be difficult to realize from any analogy in our own consciousness how the former can exist without giving rise to the latter; yet we are clearly led to believe that such is the case in God.  A logical impossibility certainly is not involved, and our utter ignorance regarding the motives which determine the election of grace should restrain us from forming the rash judgment that, psychologically speaking, the existence of such a love in God for the sinner and the decree of preterition with reference to that same sinner are mutually exclusive.  For, let it be remembered, we are confronted with the undeniable fact that this universal love of God, however defined, does not induce Him to send the gospel of salvation to all who are its objects…

Neither this indiscriminate goodness in the sphere of nature, however, nor the collective love which embraces the world as an organism, nor the love of compassion which God retains for every lost sinner, should be confounded with that fourth and highest form of the divine affection which the Savior everywhere appropriates to the disciples. This is represented under the figure of fatherhood.

p. 15

But whatever there is of organic adjustment between the sphere of nature and of the kingdom, between that of common and of special grace, between the love of compassion and the love of adoption, cannot justify us in identifying the one with the other.   In our Lord’s teaching this is never done.  So far as the actual manifestation of the love of God in human consciousness is concerned, a fundamental difference lies in this, that the enjoyment of the common love of God outside of the kingdom does not exempt man from being subject at the same time to the divine wrath on account of sin.  Love and wrath here are not mutually exclusive.

p. 17

As a positive fact, on the other hand, Paul distinctly recognizes the universal character which the manifestation of the divine love in its various aspects has assumed.  The benevolence pertaining to the sphere of common grace has received its classical description in the words that God has not left Himself without witness, in that He does good and gives from heaven rain and fruitful seasons, filling the hearts of all men with food and gladness (Acts 14:17). There is a general goodness of God adapted to lead men to repentance. [Rom. 2:4]

p. 18

To 1 John 2:2 [“And He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.”] the old distinction between the sufficiency and the intended efficacy of the expiatory sacrifice of Christ properly applies: the writer’s purpose is not to enlighten his readers about the extent to which the atonement is actually operative, but to assure them of its inexhaustible richness so far as their own sins are concerned.

p. 19

It must be granted, however, that, altogether apart from the exegesis of these passages, some sort of reference of the atonement to every man may be affirmed; and inasmuch as this reference is a beneficial one, we are led to posit back of it a form of love equally comprehensive and effective, which will have to be coordinated with the three other forms of universal love previously distinguished [ (1) ‘this indiscriminate goodness in the sphere of nature,’ (2) ‘the collective love which embraces the world as an organism,’ (3) ‘the love of compassion which God retains for every lost sinner’].  The Bible gives us no right to say that Christ in His atoning work acted as the legal substitute of every individual human being.  But certainly neither does it require us to assert that for the non-elect the atonement is void of all benefit or significance.  Every man is indebted for great privileges to the cross of Christ.  The continued existence of the race in spite of sin, but for it [the cross of Christ], would have been impossible.  The atonement by its universal sufficiency renders the gospel a message which can be preached to every human being, and the offer of the gospel illumines the entire earthly existence of every one to whom it comes by the hope that he may find himself through faith one of the actual heirs of redemption. It makes an immense difference whether our present life be spent in the consciousness of this hope or without it.  This may be best realized by making clear to ourselves what a tremendous change the withdrawal of the offer of the gospel would produce in the entire outlook upon life, even for those who do not accept its terms.  On the other hand, the love from which these universal benefits of the atonement flow should never be so defined as to obscure the fact that it falls short of the intention to bestow efficacious grace.  We must also remember that as it embodies itself in the offer of the gospel it can be called universal in a qualified sense only, since its field is circumscribed by the actual spread of the gospel at any given time.




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The Sincere Free Offer of the Gospel