April 21, 2010

Bruce Ware on "God's Universal Saving Will"

Objection 3

Unconditional election stands directly opposed to God's own desire that all be saved. Out of his universal love for all, God has a universal desire for the salvation of all sinners. Ezekiel 18:23; 1 Timothy 2:4; and 2 Peter 3:9 all teach, in their own ways, that God does not desire the wicked to perish but rather that he wills that all be saved. Since this is taught in Scripture, it simply cannot be the case that God unconditionally wills that others certainly perish. Election, then, must be conditional upon the freewill choices of human beings who reject God's loving desire that all be saved.

Reply. My reply must be far briefer than this objection deserves, but thankfully other fine and more extensive treatments are available.40 The heart of the answer here is much like what we saw in the previous discussion. On the question of the will of God regarding salvation, the Bible represents God's saving will in two ways, not one. Yes, Arminians are correct to point to passages teaching the will of God that all be saved. And many Calvinists, including myself, will grant that these texts teach the universal saving will of God, much as I also am fully convinced that the Bible teaches the universal love of God for all people. But the Bible's teaching does not stop here. Rather, Scripture teaches also the specific and inviolable will of God that some surely and certainly be saved along with its teaching that God wills the salvation of all.41 The particular will of God surely and certainly to save some (i.e. the elect), stands alongside the universal saving will of God that all be saved. How can it be both ways? Consider just one pair of passages that illustrates these "two wills" of God, and then I'll offer a few summary comments.

First Timothy 2:3–4 (HCSB) states, "This is good, and it pleases God our Savior, who wants everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (italics added), and 2 Timothy 2:24–26 (HCSB) says, "The Lord's slave must not quarrel, but must be gentle to everyone, able to teach, and patient, instructing his opponents with gentleness. Perhaps God will grant them repentance to know the truth. Then they may come to their senses and escape the Devil's trap, having been captured by him to do his will" (italics added). One feature common to both of these passages is that for people to be saved, they need to come to the knowledge of, or to know, "the truth." Yet, while they share this in common, they differ insofar as in 1 Timothy 2:4 (HCSB) God "wants everyone to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth," but in 2 Timothy 2:25 (HCSB), God must "grant them repentance" for them "to know the truth" and be saved.

In other words, God wills that all be saved, but unless God wills to grant repentance they cannot be saved. Or yet again, God wills both that all be saved, and God wills that only those to whom he grants repentance be saved. God's will, then, is both universal and particular, desiring in the first case that all be saved and in the second case that only some be saved.42

Perhaps two summary comments are in order. First, whether we can understand fully how it is that God can possess a universal love for all, along with a particular love for his own, or how God can possess a universal will that all be saved, along with a particular will that elects only some to be saved—whether we can grasp fully how both can be true—nevertheless, we are bound to the Scriptures! The Arminian view errs on these matters, not fundamentally by falsely teaching what the Bible says but by teaching only part of what the Bible says without accepting other teachings which do not easily fit with what already has been accepted. When half-truths become presented as whole truths, misrepresentation and error are inevitable. We must have a determination to accept all that Scripture teaches, and clearly it teaches both sets of truths on these issues.

Second, I do think we can understand something of how God can genuinely desire the salvation of all yet ordain and determine the salvation of only some.43 We can understand something of this because we experience much the same reality at times in our human experience. I recall watching a PBS special many years ago that told the story of an agonizing decision Winston Churchill had to make during WW II. Hitler's messages to his frontline troops and U-boats were sent to them encoded, and the German units possessed decoding machines (called "enigmas") to read and know what he was instructing them. Allied scientists developed their own version of such a decoding machine, and they would intercept Hitler's messages, decode them, and call Churchill, telling him what Hitler had instructed. On one occasion Churchill learned through his scientists' hard decoding work that Hitler had planned, in three days, to send a squadron of bombers over the English channel to bomb the small city of Coventry (a munitions factory lay just outside of the city). Obviously, Churchill wanted to call the mayor of Coventry, have the city evacuated, and save his people. But as recounted in this PBS special, Churchill never made this call. Instead, just as he had been told, German bombers flew over Coventry and bombed it mercilessly, unanticipated by all in the city, resulting in many English lives lost and much property destroyed.

Why didn't Churchill warn the city? The answer is this: if he had called the mayor of Coventry and had the city evacuated, the Germans would have known that Churchill had been able to decode Hitler's instructions. But then this intelligence-gathering advantage would be lost. Churchill believed that the entire war effort was at stake here, that is, that he could save Coventry, but he could not save these people and also win the war. He chose, then, not to save those whom he could have saved—those whom, in one sense, he willed very much to save—because he valued even more highly the fulfillment of the mission that the allied forces win the war.

Clearly all illustrations break down at some point, but where this one helps especially is here: One can possess both the will and the ability to save certain people, and this will can be genuine and the ability real. Yet one can also possess, at the same time, a will not to save those same persons whom one could have saved. Why would one not save those whom one both could and wants to save? Answer: One would will not to save only if there are greater values and higher purposes that could only be accomplished in choosing not to save those whom one could save, those whom one would otherwise want to save. Scripture does give us some indication that this is the case with God.

Consider Romans 9:22–24 (HCSB): "And what if God, desiring to display His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience objects of wrath ready for destruction? And what if He did this to make known the riches of His glory on objects of mercy that He prepared beforehand for glory—on us whom He also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?" Here, as throughout all of Scripture, the glory of God is the supreme value of God. And so we, his creatures, must simply bow and accept what God in his infinite wisdom, holiness, goodness, and power has determined will bring to expression the greatest glory to his name. That both wrath and mercy, both deserved judgment and undeserved grace, both hell and heaven should be planned from all eternity by the perfect mind and heart of God, we must accept since God has told us that this is his ultimate will and that this alone will manifest the fullness of his matchless glory. In the end we must, in our own minds and hearts, let God be God. And we must honor him both for who he is and for the glorious display of his just wrath against deserving sinners as the backdrop for the manifestation of the splendor of his mercy, shown to others who likewise deserved only his condemnation but are now granted his gracious and glorious salvation in Christ.
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40. See, e.g., John Calvin, Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God, trans. and ed. J. K. S. Reid (London: J. Clarke, 1961); Jonathan Edwards, "Concerning the Decrees in General, and Election in Particular," in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 2 vols. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1974), 2:536–34; Jewett, Election and Predestination, 97–101; and especially, John Piper, "Are There Two Wills in God?," in Still Sovereign: Contemporary Perspectives on Election, Foreknowledge, and Grace, eds. Thomas R. Schreiner and Bruce A. Ware (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 107–31. Piper's chapter in particular is enormously helpful in thinking through both biblical texts and issues that relate to this question.

41. Jewett notes that many Arminian and Lutheran theologians have also appealed to a version of the "two wills" doctrine since they all agree that God created a world in which he knew only some would be saved and others would perish. In this sense, God willed to create a world in which some people perish, but he also was willing that none perish, i.e., two wills are evident. Jewett states that following Dort (1618–1619), some "sought to resolve the problem of the divine will that all may be saved, whereas the assurance that some shall infallibly be saved reflects a consequent act of the divine will based on foreseen faith in those who accept the gospel offer" (Jewett, Election and Predestination, 98).

42. For helpful discussion of several more biblical examples of the two wills of God, see Piper, "Are There Two Wills in God?" 111–19.

43. See also, ibid., 122–31.
Bruce Ware, "Divine Election to Salvation: Unconditional, Individual, and Infralapsarian," in Perspectives on Election: Five Views, ed. Chad Owen Brand (Nashville, TN: B&H, 2006), 32–35.

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