October 26, 2009

John Thornbury on God's Will

God’s Desires and God’s Decrees

Of course those who are of an Arminian persuasion have no problem with these verses which teach so clearly that the invitation to salvation is indiscriminate. After all, their redemptive scheme is universal in the absolute sense. They teach that it is God’s solitary and ultimate design to make salvation available equally to all of Adam’s race. With this, of course, the Calvinist disagrees. But if, as the Calvinist teaches, there is a special decree of election, what is the purpose of a universal call? If God has not determined to change the hearts of all is He merely taunting people with a plea to come for forgiveness? How can such a call be sincere? Indeed, would not such a call represent God as frustrated and defeated, just as the Arminians teach?

Calvinists answer this objection by distinguishing between God’s will of desire and His will of decree. Unless this clarification between God’s two wills is made it is impossible to incorporate all the teachings of Scripture into a balanced and harmonious scheme. God, undoubtedly, wishes all to turn to Him while reserving the right to determine that some will actually turn to Him. There is of course some difficulty in harmonizing such seemingly antagonizing concepts, just as it is hard for the human mind to conceive how God can be one substance, yet existing in three persons. The difficulty is in the finitude of our minds. It is not in the clarity of the teachings of Scripture or in the dictates of logic.

Typical of doctrines of grace preachers who ground the universality of the gospel invitation in God’s desire that all turn to Him is the well-known Charles Spurgeon. In the sermon, “Salvation by Knowing the Truth,” he seeks to honestly interpret 1 Timothy 2:4 which states that God wishes all to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. Spurgeon, with not a little sarcasm, upbraids those who seek to twist this text to mean that God wishes some to be saved. He passes this view off as little better than exploding the text by using grammatical gunpowder. The true meaning he explains in a sermon, “Salvation by Knowing the Truth”:
It is quite certain that when we read that God will have all men to be saved it does not mean that He wills it with the force of a decree or a divine purpose, for if He did, then all men would be saved .... Does not the text mean that it is the wish of God that men should be saved? The word “wish” gives as much force to the original as it really requires, and the passage should run thus—”whose wish it is that all men should be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. As it is My wish that it would be so, as it is your wish that it might be so, so it is God’s wish that all men should be saved; for, assuredly, He is not less benevolent than we are.”6

Of course Spurgeon anticipates that some will query, “If God be infinitely good and powerful, why does not His power carry out to the full all His beneficence?” In other words, why does not infinite divine omnipotence accomplish that which infinite divine benevolence wishes? Spurgeon simply answers, “I cannot tell. I have never set up to be an explainer of all difficulties, and I have no desire to do so.”7

Those in both the Arminian and Calvinistic camps who fail to distinguish between the two aspects of God’s will have the greater problem because they must inevitably resort to exegetical gymnastics to get rid of the texts that do not immediately suit their particular system. The balanced Calvinist, such as Spurgeon, has a philosophical problem in reconciling different aspects of God’s nature, but after all why should we be too troubled by the mysteries of God’s being? The twin truths of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility stand, admittedly, in dynamic tension to each other. But they are not contradictory.

One of the most thorough and incisive discussions of the two aspects of the divine will can be found in Robert Dabney’s essay titled, “God’s Indiscriminate Proposals of Mercy, As Related to His Power, Wisdom, and Sincerity,” which was printed in his Evangelical and Theological Discussions. He defends with great candor and integrity the biblical teachings of a free offer of salvation to all. He continually refers to those who see only one saving disposition of God, and that is His sovereign love to the elect, as extremists. His philosophical and psychological case that a person, even God, can have connotative propensions (propensities), which are not necessarily carried out in elective decisions, is, at least to my mind, quite convincing.8

To make the matter simple, suppose that a parent has repeatedly commanded a child, for purposes of safety, never to play with the box of matches in the kitchen cabinet. The child, fascinated by fire and driven by a natural desire to resist authority, insists on getting the matches and setting little fires in the yard. One day the parent looks from his window and sees the youngster engaged in this mischievous practice. It would be possible for the parent to rush outside and deal with the danger by taking the matches from the child. Thinking, however, that it might be a good punishment for the child to burn his hands he simply watches him carry out his own wishes. In such a case the parent genuinely wants the child to leave the matchbox alone, yet he chooses, for a higher or ultimate end, to allow him to do it.

Such illustrations, of course, in the end prove nothing as far as theology is concerned. But they do point out the fact that a person can have complex emotions that can on the surface seem to be antithetical to one another. The parent has the ability by a sheer act of intervention to carry out his wish that the child leave the matches alone, yet he chooses not to use this power. Even so there is no reason to doubt that God desires people to do things which is a desire accompanied by commands and promises of reward or punishment, and yet He has also chosen not to put forth the sovereign power to induce people to carry out such commands.

The late John Murray and Ned B. Stonehouse of Westminster Theological Seminary, in a pamphlet titled The Free Offer of the Gospel, see, as do Dabney and Spurgeon, the universal call based on God’s compassion for human beings. Their exposition of the troublesome text, 2 Peter 3:9, is interesting. The verse says, “The Lord is not slow in keeping His promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”

This text has been the format for many a match of wits between Calvinists and Arminians. A typical approach of the former is to establish that the “you” of the verse are the elect spoken of in chapter 1, verse 2. What the verse means, so the Calvinist often argues, is that God is merciful and longsuffering toward His chosen people and that He is not willing that any of them be lost.

Murray and Stonehouse, in the aforementioned pamphlet, challenge this exposition. In their view there is no reason in the analogy of Scripture why we should not regard this passage as teaching that God in the exercise of His benevolent longsuffering and lovingkindness wills that none should perish but that all should come to repentance.9

The longsuffering spoken of, say Murray and Stonehouse, is not the sovereign and efficacious purpose toward the chosen but His merciful and kind disposition to men in general. “We do not believe that the restriction of the reference to the elect is well-established.”10

The authors of The Free Offer, both well-known defenders of Reformed theology, feel no constraint in affirming God’s good will toward sinners generally.
Does not, as a matter of fact, the language “not wishing that any should perish,” mean that “all should come to repentance”? Does this not set before us a basic antithesis between the death or destruction that awaits impenitent sinners and by implication, the life eternal which men may enter upon thorough repentance? God does not wish that any men should perish. His wish is rather that all should enter upon life eternal by coming to repentance.... The language of the clauses, then, most naturally refers to mankind as a whole as men are faced with the issues of death or life before the day of judgment comes. It does not view men either as elect or as reprobate, and so allows that both elect and reprobate make up the totality in view.11
6. Charles H. Spurgeon, Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit (London: Passmore and Alabaster, 1880), XXV, pp. 49–50.
7. Ibid., p. 51.
8. Robert L. Dabney, “God’s Indiscriminate Proposals of Mercy,” Discussions Theological and Evangelical, Vol. 1, (Richmond, VA: Presbyterian Committee of Publications, 1890), pp. 282–313).
9. John Murray and Ned B. Stonehouse, The Free Offer of the Gospel (Phillipsburg, NJ: Lewis J. Grotenhuis, n.d.), p. 21.
10. Ibid., p. 23.
11. Ibid., p. 24.
John Thornbury, “God’s Universal Call to Men,” Reformation and Revival 2:4 (Fall 1993), 102–106. This entire article can be downloaded here (click).

1 comment:

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