This past February, Paul Helm published a blog post entitled "The Language and Theology of the Free Offer." (HT Tony.) Though I would take exception to significant portions of his discussion of the theology of the free offer of the gospel, I wanted to comment on one statement in particular and how it relates to Calvin's theology.
In that blog post, Helm says this:
It is not part of the presentation of Christ freely to say that God sincerely desires the salvation of everyone, and to say such a thing makes preaching sermons on definite atonement and eternal election all the more difficult, leading to unnecessary perplexity.
Faith as Assurance of Divine Favor
I would make three points about Helm's statement: first, since Calvin taught that faith is the knowledge of God's love for us, it is problematic to say that God's sincere desire for the salvation of everyone is no part of the gospel presentation.
That Calvin taught the doctrine of faith I have alleged can be demonstrated most easily from the Institutes 3.2.7:
When conscience sees only wrath and indignation, how can it but tremble and be afraid? and how can it avoid shunning the God whom it thus dreads? But faith ought to seek God, not shun him. It is evident, therefore, that we have not yet obtained a full definition of faith, it being impossible to give the name to every kind of knowledge of the divine will. Shall we, then, for “will”, which is often the messenger of bad news and the herald of terror, substitute the benevolence or mercy of God? In this way, doubtless, we make a nearer approach to the nature of faith. For we are allured to seek God when told that our safety is treasured up in him; and we are confirmed in this when he declares that he studies and takes an interest in our welfare. Hence there is need of the gracious promise, in which he testifies that he is a propitious Father; since there is no other way in which we can approach to him, the promise being the only thing on which the heart of man can recline. * * * For it were of no avail to us to know that God is true, did He not in mercy allure us to himself; nor could we of ourselves embrace his mercy did not He expressly offer it.
Calvin, Institutes 3.2.7.
Notice how expressly Calvin declares that faith can only rest on the testimony of God himself that he is good and merciful. Indeed, Calvin says that the gracious promise is God's testimony that He is a propitious Father. How odd to scruple, as Helm does, against the declaration of God's desire for the salvation of any particular sinner. Such a scruple is certainly not concordant with Calvin's definition of faith. We cannot assure sinners of God's love for them while exhibiting reluctance in declaring to them God's desire that they be saved. Helm's idea of the free declaration of the gospel is distinctly at odds with Calvin's doctrine of faith.
We shall now have a full definition of faith if we say that it is a firm and sure knowledge of the divine favor toward us, founded on the truth of a free promise in Christ, and revealed to our minds, and sealed on our hearts, by the Holy Spirit.
Calvin's doctrine of faith as it relates to definite atonement
One of the important points to come out of Helm's statement is the fact that the doctrine of limited atonement as it is commonly held is not consistent with Calvin's doctrine of faith. If it is problematic to tell sinners of God's desire for their salvation (and I would equate the declaration of God's benevolence, mercy, and propitious stance toward a sinner with such a desire toward that sinner) consistently with our doctrine of limited atonement, then our doctrine of limited atonement must not be consistent with Calvin's doctrine of faith.
That such is the case is further buttressed by the reluctance that many high Calvinists have of saying that God is good and kind to the non-elect, even in a general sense. The hyper-Calvinist usually simply denies such benevolence; but many high Calvinists, though stopping short of denying God's favor toward the non-elect, stop short of allowing that such favor is salvific in any sense. The common doctrine of limited atonement produces resistance to the notion of God's love for the non-elect - especially saving love for the non-elect. Indeed, Helm baldly states that the notion that God desires the salvation of every sinner is problematic for the preaching of limited atonement and unconditional election. To me, this at the very least indicates a doctrine of atonement and election that is out of step with what Calvin taught.
Calvin's doctrine of faith supports the notion that he did not teach limited atonement
Having established that Calvin's doctrine of faith involves a declaration of God's benevolence toward sinners (I mean individual sinners, all sinners, every sinner), we are further justified in concluding that Calvin did not teach limited atonement (at least not the kind that is inconsistent with his doctrine of faith). This is especially true, as Calvin's doctrine of faith necessarily involves the proclamation of Christ's work as the very testimony of God's love for the sinner.
It were presumptuous in us to hold that God is propitious to us, had we not his own testimony, and did he not prevent us by his invitation, which leaves no doubt or uncertainty as to his will. It has already been seen that Christ is the only pledge of love, for without him all things, both above and below speak of hatred and wrath.
The work of Christ on our behalf (I speak as a man, not as a Christian) is the testimony by which God leaves no doubt as to his will. Christ is the pledge of God's love, for without Christ, "all things, both above and below speak of hatred and wrath." Without the testimony afforded by Christ's death for us, there is, indeed, no testimony of the divine favor. And if there is no testimony of the divine favor, there can be no faith.
If our doctrine of the atonement holds that there are some men for whom Christ is not the pledge of divine love and favor, then it would be presumptuous indeed on the part of Christ's ministers to profligately proclaim that God is propitious toward any particular individual. But if there is no promise of the divine favor on which the individual can repose, then there cannot possibly be faith ... at least not of the kind that Calvin taught. How could one have assurance of the divine favor if there are many men for whom Christ did not come (indeed, was not sent)? I claim that such an attitude would be not only against the spirit of Calvin's doctrine of faith, it would also be against the spirit of a Biblical notion of the gospel.
God so loved the world that he sent his only-begotten Son. See Calvin on John 3:16