September 21, 2014

God's Will in His Commands and the Special Case of Abraham and Isaac

Mainstream Calvinists have rightly argued that if God commands all men to repent and believe, according to His revealed will in the gospel, then He desires all men to repent and believe, and thus to be saved. Some have tried to sever this connection between God's preceptive will and a desire in Him for compliance by bringing up the case of God's command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. It came up in the debates at the Westminster Assembly. B. B. Warfield speaks highly of George Gillespie for distinguishing between voluntas decreti and voluntas mandati in his exchange with Edmund Calamy, and for arguing that, "The command doth not hold out God's intentions; otherwise God's command to Abraham concerning sacrificing of his son. . . ." (Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, The Westminster Assembly and Its Work [Edmonton, AB, Canada: Still Waters Revival Books, 1991 reprint of Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing, 1959], 141–142.). 

Ken Stebbins argues that the case of God's command to Abraham to sacrifice is "an exceptional case of the will of God." Discussing the subject in John Owen, he says:
Again, Owen refers to God's command to Abraham to go and sacrifice Isaac (Works X p44). This example must be regarded as a special case of God's will, and an exception is no foundation on which to build a structure of theology. If any object that I have no right to single out this example as a special case let me point out that the linchpin of all true theology is the axiom that God's Word does not contradict itself. How then do you explain that in one part of Scripture God forbids child sacrifice (Deut. 12:31, Lev. 18:21, 20:1ff) while in this case He commands it? The only way to deal with Genesis 22 is to treat it as an exceptional case of the will of God when the Lord, for the particular purpose of testing the implicit faith of Abraham to the limit, commands him to do what His very nature militates against.

Nevertheless, so far as Abraham was concerned, he was 'bound to believe' that it was not only his bare duty, but also 'well pleasing unto God that he should accomplish what was enjoined', as Owen himself admits (Works X p44). He was bound to believe that God would 'love and approve this thing, whether ever it be done or no', even as he was also bound to believe that God would yet keep His promises concerning Isaac (Heb. 11:17-19). He did not try to reconcile his conflicting duties--but simply acknowledged a mystery and followed both duties in faith.
Ken Stebbins, Christ Freely Offered (Lithgow, Australia: Covenanter Press, 1996), 27.

In the special case of Abraham and Isaac, it is useful to note that it is not only a case of God commanding something that He did not will to come to pass, but that He is also commanding something that is clearly something He does not approve. That’s another significant difference between God’s general precepts (which he does approve) and this Abraham/Isaac scenario. Note what Vos says:
80. How are we to evaluate Abraham’s case where he was first commanded to sacrifice Isaac, and this command was later withdrawn?

Here God commands something that He does not will. The great problem, however, was just how God can decree something that He does not approve. In Abraham’s case, one could at most find a difficulty concerning God'’ truthfulness. How can God say to Abraham, “It is my will that you sacrifice your son,” while in reality it was not His will? One must so understand this that God did not really say to Abraham, “It is my positive will that it come to pass (will of decree), but it is my will of precept prescribed for you,” that is, “I demand of you that you should feel commanded to do it.”
Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, trans. Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., 4 vols. (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012–2014), 1:25.

In contrast to those who want to appeal to the exceptional case of Abraham to negate the idea that God's commands elsewhere are not indicative of His desire for compliance in any sense., notice the strong connection that William Greenhill (1591–1671), a Westminster divine, makes between God's commands and His "strong will" for compliance in the gospel offer:
Fifthly, This appears from the Command of Christ, when a thing is commanded, those that command would fain have it done; now the Lord Christ commands men to come unto him, commands them to believe: John 14:1. Let not your hearts be troubled, ye believe in God, believe also in me. Believe in me, there's the ease, there's rest, there's refreshing, there's deliverance, there's salvation for you: Believe in me: and in the 1 John 3 latter end; This is his Commandment that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ. This is the Commandment of the Father that we should believe on the name of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ; and this is the Commandment of the Son that we should believe in him. When the Father commanded his Son to go to the Vineyard and dig there; the Father was very willing the child should go and do it: And so when God the Father, and Christ the Son, commands us to believe, they are very willing we should. When Princes send out their Commands to the people to do such and such things, they are very desirous they should be done: So when God gives out his Commands in the Gospel, and Christ commands in the Gospel to come, saith Christ, Let him that is athrist come; I command you to believe; It's an argument there is a strong will in him for it.
William Greenhill, Sermons of Christ (London: Printed by R. I. for Livewell Chapman at the Crown in Popes-head-Alley, 1656), 154–155.

Elsewhere, Greenhill says:
Secondly, I infer from hence, the willingness of the Lord to have poor sinners receive the benefit that is to be had by Jesus Christ; because he commands them to believe; will not you of yourselves do it? then I command you, saith he, to believe; and what's the benefit? you may see in John 3:16. whosoever believes, should not perish: here's great benefit, to be kept out of Hell, to be kept from wrath to come, and to have everlasting life. Now can you have greater benefit then to be delivered from all evil, and enjoy all good? God commands us therefore to believe, that we might partake of these benefits. God commands men to repent, he would have them repent and be saved, 2 Pet. 3:4. so[?] here he commands them to believe, and he would have them come to the knowledge of the truth and be saved, 1 Tim. 2:4. God commands you to believe in his Son Jesus Christ, that you might not perish but be saved; he is very willing, why will you die? why do you not come to my Son and believe in him? I have laid help upon him that is mighty; why do you not look for help from him? God is willing that poor sinners should have the benefit that is to be had from Christ.
William Greenhill, "Believing Lyeth Under Command, in The Sound-Hearted Christian: Or, A Treatise of Soundness of Heart (London: Printed for Nath. Crouch, at the Cross Keys in Bishopsgate-street, near Leaden-hall, 1671), 118–119.
...all the commands of God aim at no other end, tend to no other purpose, but that you may lay hold of eternal life...
Jeremiah Whitaker, The Christian's Great Design on Earth (London: Printed by G. Miller for John Bellamie at the Sign of the three golden Lions in Cornhill near the royal-Exchange, 1645), 33.

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