When Does the Good Faith Offer Become a Bad Deception?

Calvinists commitment to unconditional election along with believing in obeying the Great Commission to evangelize and make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20) necessitates certain auxiliary concepts in order to harmonize these two; the good faith offer is such a concept. The simple explanation is that while the Calvinist is to preach the gospel to all so that God can call out His unconditionally elect, every Calvinist is well aware that much of his gospel proclamation will fall upon the non-elect, who have no more chance of receiving the good news than a beaver does of being happy in a petrified forest.

Accordingly, the good faith offer is understood to exculpate Calvinists from appearing to be deceptive when they offer the gospel to all even though unconditional election inviolably precludes most from responding. Now, surely such an understanding does at least permit some legitimacy in thinking that such could give the appearance of artificiality; such may even prompt one to ask, is there a point at which this good faith offer is more accurately defined as a bad deception? I must admit, this question came to bother me greatly as a Calvinist.

Francis Schaeffer, in his book He Is There and He Is Not Silent says, “You have to preach the simple gospel so that it is simple to the person to whom you are talking, or it is no longer simple.” 1 I believe our challenge is to not only “speak the truth in love” or merely proclaim truth of the gospel, but to do so with due consideration given to enabling the listener to understand the proclamation as it is understood by the proclaimer. Thus, a crucial endeavor of all who attempt to proclaim the glorious good news to the lost is that both in intent and effort, we seek to speak in such a way that our listeners truly understand what we are saying, what are their options, and what we mean by what we say. This seems so self-evident that one could deem me foolish for broaching such a subject, but that would be imprudent.

Based upon a Calvinist understanding, God has eternally and unconditionally elected some to be the recipients of His loving salvation and has equally determined (one’s perspective regarding the order of decrees is impertinent to this reality) those for whom there is no hope, even if they heard the gospel from God Himself and also could recite the gospel in every language in the universe. Therefore, regardless how one seeks to explain the plight of the non-elect, whether through discussing decrees, or God either passively or actively not affording them the grace to be one of the elect, etc., all Calvinists believe that this group not only will not but cannot ever be the recipients of God’s salvific love and thereby, salvation, adoption, and forgiveness of sin.

As a result, remaining faithful to both unconditional election and the Great Commission requires Calvinists to offer knowingly what does not actually nor meaningfully exist for most of those to whom it is presented. Thus, in order to avoid glaring duplicity, the need to develop a concept that is supposed to justify sufficiently offering what does not meaningfully exist as though it does, which in normal understanding would be simple and unabashed deception; the good faith offer comes to the rescue.

Additionally, the coalescing of unconditional election, the Great Commission, and the good faith offer into an actual gospel presentation calls for yet another rhetorical tool, and that is the employment of enigmatic phrases that seem to mean one thing to the listener but truly mean a thoroughly different thing to the Calvinist evangelist. His meaning is esoteric (for only the select inner circle) but the listener indubitably understands it as exoteric (for the masses).

It is this last device that leads every listener to believe he is unmistakably hearing the most loving message of hope one could ever conceive while permitting the Calvinist to remain true to Calvinism. This requires the Calvinist to be extraordinarily chary in how he presents the gospel. For example, he speaks of God loving to save sinners, which actually can only mean He salvifically loves the unconditionally elect, but he dare not say to the lost with whom he speaks, God loves you and desires you to be saved or that God salvifically loves the world. He may say, “If you believe you can be saved” (which is only trivially true), whereas he cannot in anyway communicate that everyone who hears him can do that, or that God genuinely desires them to do that (I utterly reject seeking escape into the darkness of a secret will that ultimately trumps God’s revealed will as aiding the Calvinist plight).

Although I do not mind being considered too doltish to grasp how the good faith offer, which gives all the appearance of being a good offer, truly solves the problem of duplicity; it does seem to me to be in stark contrast to the gospel encounters in Scripture, which, if read without theological importations, always seem to be making nothing less than simply a good offer. This is also the practice of the rest of the Christian world as well. This brings us back to the question, is there ever a point in which the good faith offer becomes the bad deception? My answer is yes. This is in spite of a well-adorned theological need, Calvinistic consistency necessitating such, and the ever-present justifying asseverations. Upon serious, unprejudiced reflection, I find the adornment to be nothing more than a gauzily veiled misleading message. This does not speak to the motive of the messenger, but rather to the nature of the message and the understanding of the listener. Motive seems to be correlated to each particular Calvinist’s level of understanding of Calvinism; consequently, I leave that to the individual.

Although I found solace for years walking arm in arm with the good faith offer, I did reach a point where the relationship began to deteriorate. This awareness did not surface because of the challenge of others or that the concept did not fit nicely into my Calvinism. No, for me, it was my constant engagement with Scripture and people that gradually turned my solace into a chronic theological uncomfortableness and finally into an intolerable acute disdain. When I read the Scripture, offers always appeared to simply be good offers what you see is what you get sort of thing. My regular and sometimes long-term engagements with people elicited an increasing sensitivity to my biblical responsibility to aid the listener in fully understanding the offer of the gospel, their opportunity, and the consequences of rejecting God’s grace.

This increasing desire led me to see that apparently (contrary to my surface thoughts and trite words), I really did not desire that they understand too clearly or else I would doff the sophistry and tell them about unconditional election, limited atonement, efficacious calling, etc. Rather than continue down this path of conflict, I gradually found biblical harmony by abandoning the good faith offer for the good offer. Seeking to make good offers as found in Scripture quite naturally resulted in further evaluation of Calvinism’s concepts that led to such.

If sharing the good news with the non-elect is a vacuous offer (cannot actually be received or worse yet, add to that Christ did not even die for their sins), and such reality is intentionally elided by guarded language so that the listener consistently leaves with a different understanding of the offer than that which truly exists. And such understanding is not due to the ineptness of the listener, but rather to the esoterically sophisticated presentation, and this to the point that the conclusions of the hearer are irreconcilably contrary to Calvinism’s full understanding of the gospel including precisely what options actually lie before the non-elect lost and what they can really do about them, then it seems to me something far less noble than a good faith offer is present.

A few years ago, I heard a pastor speak at the Southern Baptist Convention, and he challenged everyone to work together in proclaiming the gospel to the world. However, anyone familiar with Calvinism could not miss his dedication to speaking calvinistically about such. To wit, speaking so that the uninitiated would not detect a difference between what the speaker said about the gospel and the Great Commission, and what those who reject Calvinism believe. At the conclusion of his message, my wife, daughter, and I were walking out, and being familiar with Calvinistic cryptography they both said, “He was a Calvinist was he not?” I said “Yes.” My daughter responded, “Why do they not just say what they mean?” I wish I could say the speaker was an obscurity in SBC life, but that would be egregiously inaccurate.

It may seem that I am seeking to write a few articles in order to persuade someone to leave Calvinism (I am okay with that), but more precisely, I am pleading with Calvinists to avoid speaking in such a beclouding manner, thereby making your calvinistically endowed message clear to those to whom you speak. Then they can truly decide for themselves. If a Calvinist is unwilling to do such, then perhaps one should evaluate his commitment to Calvinism and the need for such an appellation.

Here is a basic experiment anyone can perform to test the fairness of what I have written. Either accompany a Calvinist when he shares the gospel, or if a Calvinist yourself, share the good faith offer with some people. Then, ask the listeners to communicate what they heard and how they understood the message; to wit, each listener present simply explains what the gospel means to him personally, at that moment, based on the presentation.

If their understanding is not consonant with Calvinism’s understanding of the gospel offer (a good faith offer rather than a good offer), then it seems safe to assume that at least from the listener’s perspective, it is neither a good offer nor a good faith offer, but a very misleading and illusory presentation. For the non-elect, it sounded like an accessible offer; it sounded like good news; it sounded like love, but when the language is unpacked, the message is anything but that. This minimally means that while the Calvinist, balancing the principles of Calvinism, is seeking to be as forthright as he can and maintain Calvinistic integrity, the listener simply realizes that he was led to believe he was offered meaningful forgiveness when he was not.

Here is the grand perplexity in all of this. Why are Calvinists so adamant about the superiority of their understanding of God’s plan of salvation and equally devoted to obscuring such superior qualities in gospel presentations? To respond that the Calvinist is simply following the command to preach the simple gospel begs the question. To respond that these essentials of the Calvinist understanding of the gospel (unconditional election, selective regeneration, limited atonement, etc.) are not relevant to the proclamation of the gospel begs the question, relevant to whom? This may be true for the Calvinist, but to the non-elect bystander, I am quite sure he would find it absolutely pertinent and alarmingly so.

For the Calvinist to say what we preach is sufficient for the elect to believe is indeed true, e.g., “if you believe in the gospel you will be saved”; it is equally true that it is unnecessary for the elect to understand such concepts as unconditional election, limited atonement, efficacious calling, etc., in order to be saved. I say, well of course that is true. As an Extensivist, I do not even think it is necessary to understand all of God’s salvific plan in order to be saved. Correspondingly, what must be understood to be saved is not the question before us in this article. Rather, we are considering the integrity and responsibility of the speaker to speak in concert with what he actually believes about what he is saying, which concomitantly means to assist as much as possible in the listener’s understanding of the precise offer before him, and what he can and should do about it. With all due respect to honest politicians who disdain bunkum as much as the rest of us, we are not politicians but rather brokers of truth.2

A Calvinist may say that such information (limited atonement, unconditional election etc.,) is not germane. Well, I for one must adamantly disagree. We must just ask ourselves, when does implying through guarded language what one does not believe to be true become deception? Does such ever amount to deception? Calvinists scold the rest of us for not believing correctly, and yet arduously work to give the appearance that they are preaching the same message the rest of us preach, which is a simple and straightforward message to all, as ubiquitously seen in the Scripture. The Calvinist message gives the appearance of being an open invitation, which it is undeniably not.

When one sells a used car and tells the potential buyer everything works well, that is a good faith offer, provided, to the best of his knowledge everything works well, and he is not holding anything back that might affect the buyer’s decision. That is to say, the seller and the potential buyer have precisely the same understanding of the offer, based upon all the knowledge the seller has. If the seller knows that the car only works partially well, his offer is not good, nor is it even a good faith offer, but, at best, a misleading presentation. Of course if the car in question does not even exist, then, what we have is even baser. Maybe we should ask the ones hearing the Calvinist gospel, after enlightening them about limited atonement, irresistible grace, unconditional election, etc., if they think the offer they are receiving is good.

Lastly, such obscurations cannot be justified by noting similar incompleteness in social niceties, i.e. when an acquaintance asks “how are you feeling” does not even suggest that one should disclose every ailment. For in the case discussed in this article, the gospel is being presented, and the meaning of such by the speaker and listener is eternally important and drastically different even though the listener thinks they are the same; whereas, the social niceties, as a mere greeting, are thoroughly understood by passersby to preclude receiving an exhaustive recitation of one’s infirmities. That is to say, proprieties of social graces are not at stake, but rather eternal destines are being forecast (other reasons apply here as well).

Paul preached, “Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent” (Acts 17:30).

I for one think that the so-called “good faith offer” lacks being an offer (since nothing is actually being offered to the non-elect) and therefore lacks being good, at least for the non-elect. A potential redemption for the concept necessitates clarity on the part of the presenter that permits the hearer to understand the presentation as the presenter; then the Calvinist can say his presentation is in good faith and clarity. Thus, it seems that some reality of the thing offered needs to exist before the offer can be rightly called good, and such offer needs also to be disencumbered of intentionally beclouding speech.

Our Lord Jesus said, “I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3, 5).

Note the simplicity and clarity. Simple dilemma, people are perishing. Simple message, repent. Simple meaning, they should and can repent. Simple concept, good offer; thus, the gospel!

 


[1] Francis A. Schaeffer, The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer: a Christian Worldview, vol. 1 (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1982), 285.

[2] David Wells uses this in his book No Place for Truth.