November 13, 2008

John MacArthur on the Sincerity of the Gospel Offer

Is God Sincere in the Gospel Offer?

Of course, people who assert that God's love is exclusively for the elect will usually acknowledge that God nevertheless shows mercy, longsuffering, and benevolence to the unrighteous and unbelievers. But they will insist that this apparent benevolence has nothing whatsoever to do with love or any sort of sincere affection. According to them, God's acts of benevolence toward the non-elect have no other purpose than to increase their condemnation.

Such a view, it seems to me, imputes insincerity to God. It suggests that God's pleadings with the reprobate are artificial, and that His offers of mercy are mere pretense.

Often in scripture, God makes statements that reflect a yearning for the wicked to repent. In Psalm 81:13 He says, "Oh that My people would listen to Me, that Israel would walk in My ways!" And, again, in Ezekiel 18:32 He says, "'I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies,' declares the Lord God. Therefore, repent and live.'"

Elsewhere, God freely and indiscriminately offers mercy to all who will come to Christ: "Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you shall find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My load is light" (Matt. 11:28-30). "And the Spirit and the bride say, 'Come.' And let the one who hears say, 'Come.' And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes [whosoever will—KJV] take the water of life without cost" (Rev. 2:17).

God Himself says, "Turn to Me, and be saved, all the ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other" (Isa. 45:22). And, "Ho! Every one who thirsts, come to the waters; and you who have no money come, buy and eat. Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost" (Isa. 55:1). "Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; and let him return to the Lord, and He will have compassion on him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon" (v. 7).

There are some who flatly deny that such invitations constitute any sincere offer of mercy to the non-elect. As far as they are concerned, the very word offer smacks of Arminianism (a name for the doctrine that makes salvation hinge solely on a human decision). They deny that God would "offer" salvation to those whom He has not chosen. They deny that God's pleadings with the reprobate reflect any real desire on God's part to see the wicked turn from their sins. To them, suggesting that God could have such an unfulfilled "desire" is a direct attack on divine sovereignty. God is sovereign, they suggest, and He does whatever pleases Him. Whatever He desires, He does.

Let us be completely honest: this poses a difficulty. How can unfulfilled desire be compatible with a wholly sovereign God? For example, in Isaiah 46:10, God states, "My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all my good pleasure." He is, after all, utterly sovereign. It is not improper to suggest that any of His actual "desires" remain unfulfilled?

This issue was the source of an intense controversy among some Reformed and Presbyterian denominations about fifty years ago—sometimes referred to as the "free offer" controversy. One group denied that God loves the non-elect. They also denied the concept of common grace (God's non-saving goodness to mankind in general). And they denied that divine mercy and eternal life are offered indiscriminately to everyone who hears the gospel. The gospel offer is not free, they claimed, but is extended to the elect alone. That position is a form of hyper-Calvinism.

Scripture clearly proclaims God's absolute and utter sovereignty over all that happens. He declared the end of all things before time even began, so whatever comes to pass is in perfect accord with the divine plan.

What God has purposed, He will also do (Isa. 46:10-11; Num. 23:19). God is not at the mercy of contingencies. He is not subject to His creatures' choices. He "works all things after the counsel of His will" (Eph. 1:11). Nothing occurs but that which is in accord with His purposes (cf. Acts 4:28). Nothing can thwart God's design, and nothing can occur apart from His sovereign decree (Isa. 43:13; Ps. 33:11). He does all His good pleasure: "Whatever the Lord pleases, He does, in heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deeps" (Ps. 135:6).

But that does not mean God derives pleasure from every aspect of what He has decreed. God explicitly says that He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezek. 18:32; 33:11). He does not delight in evil (Isa. 65:12). He hates all expressions of wickedness and pride (Prov. 6:16-19). Since none of those things can occur apart from the decree of a sovereign God, we must conclude that there is a sense in which His decrees do not always reflect His desires; His purposes are not necessarily accomplished in accord with His preferences.

The language here is necessarily anthropopathic (ascribing human emotions to God). To speak of unfulfilled desires in the Godhead is to employ terms fit only for the human mind. Yet such expressions communicate some truth about God that cannot otherwise be expressed in human language. As noted in chapter 3, God's own Word uses anthropopathisms to convey truth about Him that cannot adequately be represented to us through any other means. To give but one example, consider Genesis 6:6: "The Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart." Yet we know that God does not change His mind (1 Sam. 15:29). He is immutable; "with [Him] there is no variation, or shifting shadow" (Jas. 1:17). So whatever Genesis 6:6 means, it cannot suggest any changeableness in God. The best we can do with such an anthropopathism is try to grasp the essence of the idea, then reject any implications we know would take us to ideas about God that are unbiblical.

That same principle applies when we are grappling with the question of God's expressed desire for the wicked to repent. If God's "desire" remains unfulfilled (and we know that in some cases, it does--Lk. 13:34), we cannot conclude that God is somehow less than sovereign. We know He is fully sovereign; we do not know why He does not turn the heart of every sinner to Himself. Nor should we speculate in this area. It remains a mystery the answer to which God has not seen fit to reveal. "The secret things belong to the Lord our God"; only "the things revealed belong to us" (Deut. 29:29). At some point, we must say with the psalmist, "Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; It is too high, I cannot attain it" (Ps. 139:6).  
John MacArthur, The Love of God (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1996), 107–110.

Commenting on this book by MacArthur, Armstrong wrote:
A biblical study which demonstrates that the Father’s heart is one of love for all people, especially for His own. A good corrective to the emphasis of newer hyper-Calvinism.
John Armstrong, "Annotated Bibliography," Reformation and Revival 7:2 (Spring 1998): 146.

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