Louis Berkhof on the Sincere Free Offer of the Gospel


The Three Points in All Parts Reformed, 1925, these are quotes translated from the Dutch by Herman Hoeksema, a critic of Berkhof, in the former’s Triple Breach.

page 21

The general and well-meaning offer of salvation is an evidence of God’s favor toward sinners, is a blessing of the Lord upon them…  

Scriptures teach us without doubt, that we must consider the offer of salvation [as] a temporal blessing also for them that do not heed the invitation…  

That God calls the ungodly to repentance is presented in the Holy Scriptures as a proof of His pleasure in their salvation… 

In the prophecy of Ezekiel we may listen to the voice of the Lord in words that bear testimony to His mercy: “Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? saith the Lord God; and not that he should return from his ways and live?” [Eze. 18:23]  And again: “For I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth (that is, of him that perisheth in his sins), saith the Lord God; wherefore turn yourselves and live ye.” [Eze. 18:32]  These passages tell us as clearly as words can tell, that God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked; note, that He does not say: ‘of the elect sinner’ but ‘of the sinner’ entirely in general; and the tender calling we hear therein witnesses of His great love for sinners and of His pleasure in the salvation of the ungodly.


pages 42-43, commenting on Genesis 6:3 “And the Lord said, My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh”

The Holy Spirit resisted the ungodliness and perversity of those generations, that lived before the flood.  He sought to check their ungodliness and to lead them to repentance….  

But the Spirit strove in vain; sin increased rapidly… 

the Spirit strives in vain.  He attempts to check the power of sin and lead men to repentance, but He strives in vain, He fails.

[Berkhof is not denying irresistible grace, which he asserts and defends at length in his Systematic Theology, but he is affirming that there are resistible graces and operations of the Holy Spirit.  For this teaching defended from scripture and reformed history, along with Berkhof’s relevant quotes on the topic from his Systematic Theology, see here.]



Systematic Theology, 1950

VI. The Purpose and Extent of the Atonement, p.397-398, Banner of Truth edition


d. Finally, there is an objection derived from the bona fide [with good faith] offer of salvation.  We believe that God “unfeignedly,” that is, sincerely or in good faith, calls all those who are living under the gospel to believe, and offers them salvation in the way of faith and repentance.  Now the Arminians maintain that such an offer of salvation cannot be made by those who believe that Christ died only for the elect.  This objection was already raised at the time of the Synod of Dort, but its validity was not granted.  The following remarks may be made in reply:

(1) The offer of salvation in the way of faith and repentance does not pretend to be a revelation of the secret counsel of God, more specifically, of His design in giving Christ as an atonement for sin.  It is simply the promise of salvation to all those who accept Christ by faith.

(2)  This offer, in so far as it is universal, is always conditioned by faith and conversion.  Moreover, it is contingent on a faith and repentance such as can only be wrought in the heart of man by the operation of the Holy Spirit.

(3)  The universal offer of salvation does not consist in the declaration that Christ made atonement for every man that hears the gospel, and that God really intends to save each one.  It consists in

(a) an exposition of the atoning work of Christ as in itself sufficient for the redemption of all men;

(b) a description of the real nature of the repentance and faith that are required in coming to Christ; and

(c) a declaration that each one who comes to Christ with true repentance and faith will obtain the blessings of salvation.

(4) It is not the duty of the preacher to harmonize the secret counsel of God respecting the redemption of sinners with His declarative will as expressed in the universal offer of salvation. He is simply an official ambassador, whose duty it is to carry out the will of the Lord in preaching the gospel to all men indiscriminately.

(5) Dr. [W.G.T.] Shedd says: “The universal offer of the benefits of Christ’s atonement springs out of God’s will of complacency, Ezek. 33:11…. God may properly call upon the non-elect to do a thing that God delights in, simply because He does delight in it.  The divine desire is not altered by the divine decree of preterition.” [Dogm. Theol. II, p. 484.]  He also quotes a very similar statement from Turretin.

(6) The universal offer of salvation serves the purpose of disclosing the aversion and obstinacy of man in his opposition to the gospel, and of removing every vestige of excuse.  If it were not made, sinners might say that they would gladly have accepted the gift of God, if it only had been offered to them.



V. Calling in General and External Calling



b. The preparatory nature of external calling.  If we proceed on the assumption that the ordo salutis deals with the effective application of the redemption wrought by Christ, we feel at once that the external calling by the Word of God can, strictly speaking, hardly be called one of its stages.  As long as this calling does not, through the accompanying operation of the Holy Spirit, turn into an internal and effectual calling, it has only a preliminary and preparatory significance.  Several Reformed theologians speak of it as a kind of common grace, since it does not flow from the eternal election and the saving grace of God, but rather from His common goodness; and since, while it sometimes produces a certain illumination of the mind, it does not enrich the heart with the saving grace of God. [Cf. references above, pp. 304 f. and also a Marck, Godgeleerdheid. XXIII. 3.]

c. The general nature of external calling. While all the other movements of the Holy Spirit in the ordo salutis terminate on the elect only, the external calling by the gospel has a wider bearing.  Wherever the gospel is preached, the call comes to the elect and the reprobate alike.  It serves the purpose, not merely of bringing the elect to faith and conversion, but also of revealing the great love of God to sinners in general.  By means of it God maintains His claim on the obedience of all His rational creatures, restrains the manifestation of sin, and promotes civic righteousness, external morality, and even outward religious exercises.  [Cf. Bavinck, Geref. Dogm. IV, pp. 7 f.]



Since external calling is but an aspect of calling in general, we shall have to consider this briefly before entering upon a discussion of external calling.

1. THE AUTHOR OF OUR CALLING. Our calling is a work of the triune God. It is first of all a work of the Father, I Cor. 1:9; I Thess. 2:12; I Pet. 5:10. But the Father works all things through the Son; and so this calling is also ascribed to the Son, Matt. 11:28; Luke 5:32; John 7:37; Rom. 1:6(?). And Christ, in turn, calls through His Word and Spirit, Matt. 10:20; John 15:26; Acts 5:31,32.

2. VOCATIO REALIS AND VERBALIS. Reformed theologians generally speak of a vocatio realis, as distinguished from the vocatio verbalis. By this they mean the external call that comes to men through God’s general revelation, a revelation of the law and not of the gospel, to acknowledge, fear, and honour God as their Creator. It comes to them in things (res) rather than in words: in nature and history, in the environment in which they live, and in the experiences and vicissitudes of their lives, Ps. 19:1-4; Acts 16:16,17; 17:27; Rom. 1:19-21; 2:14,15. This call knows nothing of Christ, and therefore cannot lead to salvation. At the same time it is of the greatest importance in connection with the restraint of sin, the development of the natural life, and the maintenance of good order in society. This is not the calling with which we are concerned at present. In soteriology only the vocatio verbalis comes into consideration; and this may be defined as that gracious act of God whereby He invites sinners to accept the salvation that is offered in Christ Jesus.

3. DIFFERENT CONCEPTIONS OF THE VOCATIO VERBALIS. The vocatio verbalis is, as the term itself suggests, the divine call that comes to man through the preaching of the Word of God

The distinction between external and internal calling is already found in Augustine, was borrowed from him by Calvin, and thus made prominent in Reformed theology.  According to Calvin the gospel call is not in itself effective, but is made efficacious by the operation of the Holy Spirit, when He savingly applies the Word to the heart of man; and it is so applied only in the hearts and lives of the elect.  Thus the salvation of man remains the work of God from the very beginning. God by His saving grace, not only enables, but causes man to heed the gospel call unto salvation…  


The Bible does not use the term “external,” but clearly speaks of a calling that is not efficacious.  It is presupposed in the great commission, as it is found in Mark 16:15,16, “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to the whole creation. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that disbelieveth shall be condemned.”  The parable of the marriage feast in Matt. 22:2-14 clearly teaches that some who were invited did not come, and concludes with the well-known words: “For many are called, but few chosen.”  The same lesson is taught in the parable of the great supper, Luke 14:16-24.  Other passages speak explicitly of a rejection of the gospel, John 3:36; Acts 13:46; II Thess. 1:8.  Still others speak of the terrible sin of unbelief in a way which clearly shows that it was committed by some, Matt. 10:15; 11:21-24; John 5:40; 16:8,9; I John 5:10.  The external call consists in the presentation and offering of salvation in Christ to sinners, together with an earnest exhortation to accept Christ by faith, in order to obtain the forgiveness of sins and life eternal.


b. An invitation to accept Christ in repentance and faith.  The representation of the way of salvation must be supplemented by an earnest invitation (2 Cor. 5:11,20) and even a solemn command (John 6:28,29; Acts 19:4) to repent and believe, that is to accept Christ by faith.  But, in order that this coming to Christ may not be understood in a superficial sense, as it is often represented by revivalists, the true nature of the repentance and the faith required should be clearly set forth.  It must be made perfectly clear that the sinner cannot of himself truly repent and believe, but that it is God who worketh in him “both to will and to work, for His good pleasure.”

c. A promise of forgiveness and salvation. The external call also contains a promise of acceptance for all those who comply with the conditions, not in their own strength, but by the power of the grace of God wrought in their hearts by the Holy Spirit.  They who by grace repent of their sins and accept Christ by faith receive the assurance of the forgiveness of sins and of eternal salvation.  This promise, it should be noticed, is never absolute, but always conditional.  No one can expect its fulfilment, except in the way of a faith and repentance that is truly wrought by God.

From the fact that these elements are included in external calling, it may readily be inferred that they who reject the gospel not merely refuse to believe certain facts and ideas, but resist the general operation of the Holy Spirit, which is connected with this calling, and are guilty of the sin of obstinate disobedience.  By their refusal to accept the gospel, they increase their responsibility, and treasure up wrath for themselves in the day of judgment, Rom. 2:4,5.  That the above elements are actually included in the external calling, is quite evident from the following passages of Scripture:

(a) According to Acts 20:27 Paul considers the declaration of the whole counsel of God as a part of the call; and in Eph. 3:7-11 he recounts some of the details which he had declared unto the readers.

(b) Examples of the call to repent and believe are found in such passages as Ezek. 33:11; Mark 1:15; John 6:29; II Cor. 5:20.

(c) And the promise is contained in the following passages, John 3:16-18,36; 5:24,40.  [Cf. also the Canons of Dort II, 5,6; III and IV, 8.]



a. It is general or universal.  This is not to be understood in the sense in which it was maintained by some of the old Lutheran theologians, namely, that that call actually came to all the living more than once in the past, as, for instance, in the time of Adam, in that of Noah, and in the days of the apostles. McPherson correctly says: “A universal call of this kind is not a fact, but a mere theory invented for a purpose.”[Chr. Dogm. p. 377.]  In this representation the terms “general” or “universal” are not used in the sense in which they are intended, when it is said that the gospel call is general or universal.  Moreover, the representation is at least in part contrary to fact.  External calling is general only in the sense that it comes to all men to whom the gospel is preached, indiscriminately.  It is not confined to any age or nation or class of men.  It comes to both the just and the unjust, the elect and the reprobate.  The following passages testify to the general nature of this call: Isa. 55:1, “Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; some ye, buy and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price,” cf. also verses 6,7. In connection with this passage one might conceivably say that only spiritually qualified sinners are called; but this certainly cannot be said of Isa. 45:22, “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is none else.”  Some also interpret the familiar invitation of Jesus in Matt. 11:28, “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” as limited to such as are truly concerned about their sins and really repentant; but there is no warrant for such a limitation.  The last book of the Bible concludes with a beautiful general invitation: “And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And he that heareth, let him say, Come. And he that is athirst, let him come: he that will, let him take of the water of life freely,” Rev. 22:17.  That the gospel invitation is not limited to the elect, as some hold, is quite evident from such passages as Ps. 81:11-13; Prov. 1:24-26; Ezek. 3:19; Matt. 22:2-8,14; Luke 14:16-24.

The general character of this calling is also taught in the Canons of Dort. [II, 5; III and IV, 8.]  Yet this doctrine repeatedly met with opposition by individuals and groups in the Reformed Churches. In the Scottish Church of the seventeenth century some denied the indiscriminate invitation and offer of salvation altogether, while others wanted to limit it to the confines of the visible Church.  Over against these the Marrow men, such as Boston and the Erskines, defended it.  In the Netherlands this point was disputed especially in the eighteenth century.  They who maintained the universal offer were called preachers of the new light, while they who defended the particular offer, the offer to those who already gave evidence of a measure of special grace and could therefore be reckoned as among the elect, were known as the preachers of the old light.  Even in the present day we occasionally meet with opposition on this point.  It is said that such a general invitation and offer is inconsistent with the doctrine of predestination and of particular atonement, doctrines in which, it is thought, the preacher should take his starting point.  But the Bible does not teach that the preacher of the gospel should take his starting point in these doctrines, however important they may be.  His starting point and warrant lie in the commission of his King: “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved: but he that believeth not shall be damned.” Mark 16:15,16.  Moreover, it is an utter impossibility that anyone, in preaching the gospel, should limit himself to the elect, as some would have us do, since he does not know who they are.  Jesus did know them, but He did not so limit the offer of salvation, Matt. 22:3-8,14; Luke 14:16-21; John 5:38-40.  There would be a real contradiction between the Reformed doctrines of predestination and particular atonement on the one hand, and the universal offer of salvation on the other hand, if this offer included the declaration that God purposed to save every individual hearer of the gospel, and that Christ really atoned for the sins of each one of them.  But the gospel invitation involves no such declaration.  It is a gracious calling to accept Christ by faith, and a conditional promise of salvation.  The condition is fulfilled only in the elect, and therefore they only obtain eternal life.

b. It is a bona fide [good-faith] calling.  The external calling is a calling in good faith, a calling that is seriously meant.  It is not an invitation coupled with the hope that it will not be accepted.  When God calls the sinner to accept Christ by faith, He earnestly desires this; and when He promises those who repent and believe eternal life, His promise is dependable.  This follows from the very nature, from the veracity, of God. It is blasphemous to think that God would be guilty of equivocation and deception, that He would say one thing and mean another, that He would earnestly plead with the sinner to repent and believe unto salvation, and at the same time not desire it in any sense of the word.  The bona fide character of the external call is proved by the following passages of Scripture: Num. 23:19; Ps. 81:13-16; Prov. 1:24; Isa. 1:18-20; Ezek. 18:23,32; 33:11; Matt. 21:37; 2 Tim. 2:13.  The Canons of Dort also assert it explicitly in [sections] 3 and 4.8. 

Several objections have been offered to the idea of such a bona fide offer of salvation.

(1) One objection is derived from the veracity of God.  It is said that, according to this doctrine, He offers the forgiveness of sins and eternal life to those for whom He has not intended these gifts.  It need not be denied that there is a real difficulty at this point, but this is the difficulty with which we are always confronted, when we seek to harmonize the decretive and the preceptive will of God, a difficulty which even the objectors cannot solve and often simply ignore.  Yet we may not assume that the two are really contradictory.  The decretive will of God determines what will most certainly come to pass (without necessarily implying that God really takes delight in all of it, as, for instance, in all kinds of sin), while the preceptive will is man’s rule of life, informing him as to what is well pleasing in the sight of God.  Furthermore, it should be borne in mind that God does not offer sinners the forgiveness of sins and eternal life unconditionally, but only in the way of faith and conversion; and that the righteousness of Christ, though not intended for all, is yet sufficient for all.

(2) A second objection is derived from the spiritual inability of man.  Man, as he is by nature, cannot believe and repent, and therefore it looks like mockery to ask this of him. But in connection with this objection we should remember that in the last analysis man’s inability in spiritual things is rooted in his unwillingness to serve God.  The actual condition of things is not such that many would like to repent and believe in Christ, if they only could.  All those who do not believe are not willing to believe, John 5:40.  Moreover, it is no more unreasonable to require repentance and faith in Christ of men than it is to demand of them that they keep the law.  Very inconsistently some of those who oppose the general offer of salvation on the basis of man’s spiritual inability, do not hesitate to place the sinner before the demands of the law and even insist on doing this.



The question may be asked, why God comes to all men indiscriminately, including even the reprobate, with the offer of salvation. This external calling answers more than one purpose.

a. In it God maintains His claim on the sinner. As the sovereign Ruler of the universe He is entitled — and this is a matter of absolute right — to the service of man. And though man tore away from God in sin and is now incapable of rendering spiritual obedience to his rightful Sovereign, his willful transgression did not abrogate the claim of God on the service of His rational creatures. The right of God to demand absolute obedience remains, and He asserts this right in both the law and the gospel.  His claim on man also finds expression in the call to faith and repentance.  And if man does not heed this call, he disregards and slights the just claim of God and thereby increases his guilt.

b. It is the divinely appointed means of bringing sinners to conversion.  In other words, it is the means by which God gathers the elect out of the nations of the earth.  As such it must necessarily be general or universal, since no man can point out the elect.  The final result is, of course, that the elect, and they only, accept Christ by faith.  This does not mean that missionaries can go out and give their hearers the assurance that Christ died for each one of them and that God intends to save each one; but it does mean that they can bring the joyful tidings that Christ died for sinners, that He invites them to come unto Him, and that He offers salvation to all those who truly repent of their sins and accept him with a living faith.

c. It is also a revelation of God’s holiness, goodness, and compassion.  In virtue of His holiness God dissuades sinners everywhere from sin, and in virtue of His goodness and mercy He warns them against self-destruction, postpones the execution of the sentence of death, and blesses them with the offer of salvation.  There is no doubt about it that this gracious offer is in itself a blessing and not, as some would have it, a curse for sinners.  It clearly reveals the divine compassion for them, and is so represented in the Word of God, Ps. 81:13; Prov. 1:24; Ezek. 18:23,32; 33:11; Amos 8:11; Matt. 11:20-24; 23:37.  At the same time it is true that man by his opposition to it may turn even this blessing into a curse.  It naturally heightens the responsibility of the sinner, and, if not accepted and improved, will increase his judgment.

d. Finally, it clearly accentuates the righteousness of God. If even the revelation of God in nature serves the purpose of forestalling any excuse which sinners might be inclined to make, Rom. 1:20, this is all the more true of the special revelation of the way of salvation.  When sinners despise the forbearance of God and reject His gracious offer of salvation, the greatness of their corruption and guilt, and the justice of God in their condemnation, stands out in the clearest light.




c. The Grace of God.

The Bible generally uses the word to denote the unmerited goodness or love of God to those who have forfeited it, and are by nature under a sentence of condemnation.  The grace of God is the source of all spiritual blessings that are bestowed upon sinners.  As such we read of it in Eph. 1:6,7; 2:7-9; Tit. 2:11; 3:4-7.  While the Bible often speaks of the grace of God as saving grace, it also makes mention of it in a broader sense, as in Isa. 26:10; Jer. 16:13.  The grace of God is of the greatest practical significance for sinful men.  It was by grace that the way of redemption was opened for them, Rom. 3:24; 2 Cor. 8:9, and that the message of redemption went out into the world, Acts 14:3.  By grace sinners receive the gift of God in Jesus Christ, Acts 18:27; Eph. 2:8. By grace they are justified, Rom. 3:24; 4:16; Tit. 3:7, they are enriched with spiritual blessings, John 1:16; II Cor. 8:9; II Thess. 2:16, and they finally inherit salvation, Eph. 2:8; Tit. 2:11.



III. Common Grace


c. Special grace is irresistible.  This does not mean that it is a deterministic force which compels man to believe against his will, but that by changing the heart it makes man perfectly willing to accept Jesus Christ unto salvation and to yield obedience to the will of God.  Common grace is resistible, and as a matter of fact is always more or less resisted. Paul shows in Rom. 1 and 2 that neither the Gentiles nor the Jews were living up to the light which they had.  Says [W.G.T.] Shedd: “In common grace the call to believe and repent is invariably ineffectual, because man is averse to faith and repentance and in bondage to sin.”  [Calvinism Pure and Mixed, p. 99.]  It is ineffectual unto salvation because it leaves the heart unchanged.

d. Special grace works in a spiritual and re-creative way, renewing the whole nature of man, and thus making man able and willing to accept the offer of salvation in Jesus Christ, and to produce spiritual fruits.  Common grace, to the contrary, operates only in a rational and moral way by making man in a general way receptive for the truth, by presenting motives to the will, and by appealing to the natural desires of man.  This is equivalent to saying that special (saving) grace is immediate and supernatural, since it is wrought directly in the soul by the immediate energy of the Holy Spirit, while common grace is mediate, since it is the product of the mediate operation of the Holy Spirit through the truth of general or special revelation and by moral persuasion.



The question naturally arises, whether the manifestation of common grace is in any way connected with the atoning work of Christ….

Reformed theologians generally hesitate to say that Christ by His atoning blood merited these blessings for the impenitent and reprobate.  At the same time they do believe that important natural benefits accrue to the whole human race from the death of Christ, and that in these benefits the unbelieving, the impenitent, and the reprobate also share.  In every covenant transaction recorded in Scripture it appears that the covenant of grace carries with it not only spiritual but also material blessings, and those material blessings are generally of such a kind that they are naturally shared also by unbelievers.  Says Cunningham:

“Many blessings flow to mankind at large from the death of Christ, collaterally and incidentally, in consequence of the relation in which men, viewed collectively, stand to each other.”  [Hist. Theol. II, p. 333]

And it is but natural that this should be so.  If Christ was to save an elect race, gradually called out of the world of humanity in the course of centuries, it became necessary for God to exercise forbearance, to check the course of evil, to promote the development of the natural powers of man, to keep alive within the hearts of men a desire for civil righteousness, for external morality and good order in society, and to shower untold blessings upon mankind in general.  Dr. [Charles] Hodge expresses it thus:

“It is very plain that any plan designed to secure the salvation of an elect portion of a race propagated by generation and living in association, as is the case with mankind, cannot secure its end without greatly affecting, for better or for worse, the character and destiny of all the rest of the race not elected.”

He quotes Dr. [Robert] Candlish to the effect that

“the entire history of the human race, from the apostasy to the final judgment, is a dispensation of forbearance in respect to the reprobate, in which many blessings, physical and moral, affecting their characters and destinies forever, accrue even to the heathen, and many more to the educated and refined citizens of Christian communities. These come to them through the mediation of Christ, and coming to them now, must have been designed for them from the beginning.”  [The Atonement, pp. 358 f.] 

These general blessings of mankind, indirectly resulting from the atoning work of Christ, were not only foreseen by God, but designed by Him as blessings for all concerned.  It is perfectly true, of course, that the design of God in the work of Christ pertained primarily and directly, not to the temporal well-being of men in general, but to the redemption of the elect; but secondarily and indirectly it also included the natural blessings bestowed on mankind indiscriminately.  All that the natural man receives other than curse and death is an indirect result of the redemptive work of Christ.  [Cf Turretin, Opera, Locus XIV, Q. XIV, par. XI; Witsius, De Verbonden, B. II, Kap. 9, s. 4; Cunningham, Hist. Theol. II, p. 332; Symington, Atonement and Intercession, p. 255; Bavinck, Geref. Dogm. III, p. 535; Vos, Ger. Dogm. III, p. 150.]




Related Page

The Sincere Free Offer of the Gospel

Berkhof on the General and Special Operations of the Holy Spirit

Berkhof on the Goodness, Love, Grace, Mercy and Long-Suffering of God

Berkhof on Common Grace