March 13, 2016

Edward Polhill (1622–1694) on God’s Will for the Conversion of Reprobates

...God doth will the conversion of reprobates in a double manner.

1. God wills their conversion, Voluntate simplicis complacentiæ; Conversion even in a reprobate would make joy in heaven, it would be τὸ εὐάρεϛον, grateful and well-pleasing to God; if we believe him swearing by his life, his pleasure or delight is in the wicked man’s turning, (Ezek. xxxiii. 11). God delights in his image, wherever it be.

2. God wills their conversion Voluntate virtuali vel ordinativâ Mediorum; for the right understanding whereof I shall lay down four things.

1. The proper end and tendency of all means is to turn men unto God: within the sphere of the church, such is the end and tendency thereof. Why did Christ come, but to turn every one from his iniquities? (Acts iii. 26.) Why did he preach, but that his hearers might be saved? (John v. 34.) Why did the apostle warn and teach every man, but to present every man perfect in Christ? (Col. i. 28.) John’s baptism was εἰς μετάνοιαν, (Matth. iii. 11). Church-censures were εἰς οἰκοδομὴν, (2 Cor. x. 8.) Even the delivering to Satan was for the destruction of the flesh, (1 Cor. v. 5.) Conversion is the true center of the means. Nay, without the sphere of the church, the true end and tendency of things is such, that God might be seen in every creature, (Rom. i. 20.) Sought and felt in every place, (Acts xvii. 27.) Witnessed in every shower, (Acts xiv. 17.) Feared in the sea-bounding sand, (Jer. v. 22.) Humbled under in every abasing providence, (Dan. v. 22.) Turned to in every judgment, (Amos iv. 11). In a word, the end and tendency of all God’s works is that men might fear before him, (Eccles. iii. 14.) The whole world is a great ordinance, as it is in itself, preached forth the power and goodness of God who made it; and as it is the unconsumed state of so many crying sins, preached forth the clemency and mercy of God who spares it, and dashes it not down about the sinner’s ears. All the goodness and forbearance of God leads men to repentance, (Rom. ii. 4.) That piece of gospel [Whoso confesseth and forsaketh his sins shall have mercy] seems legible in his patience; for it may be naturally and rationally concluded, that that God, who in his clemency spares men though sinners, will in his mercy pardon them when repenting and returning. This is the true duct and tendency of his patience, even that men might turn and repent.

2. The tendency of the means to conversion is such, that if men under the administration is such, that if men under the administration thereof turn not unto God, the only reason lies within themselves, in their own corrupt hearts. If God purge, and men are not purged, it is because there is lewdness in their filthiness, (Ezek. xxiv. 13.) If he would gather, and men are not gathered, it is because they will not, (Matt. xxiii. 37.) If he spread out his hands, and men come not in, it is because they are rebellious, (Isa. Ixv. 2.) If he be patient and long-suffering, and they repent not, it is because of their hardness and impenitent heart, (Rom. ii. 5.) The apostle calls the heretical seducers in his time μετατιθέντες, such as did turn or transfer the grace of God from its true end or scope, Jud. 4. And what those seducers did doctrinally, that do all sinners practically; so far forth as they live under the means and turn not, they do thereby transfer and remove the means from their genuine end.

3. God doth by a formal decree will the means with their tendencies. All ordinances are sealed by the divine will, and go out in its name, and are what they are from its ordination. Without this, means are no longer means, but mere empty names and vain shadows.

4. Out of God’s formal decree of the means doth result his virtual will of men’s conversion. That God, who doth formally will the means with their tendencies, even unto reprobates, doth virtually will their conversion as the true scope and end of those means. Hence it is said, that Christ would have gathered the unbelieving jews, (Matth. xxiiii. 37,) and God would have all men to be saved, (1 Tim. ii. 4,) viz. in respect of his virtual or ordinative will.  Hence God brought in, wishing, Oh! that thou hadst hearkened to my commandments. (Isai. xlviii. 18.) And what are these wishes? Surely all the diffusions of light, promulgations of laws, expansions of gospel grace, waitings of divine patience, and strivings of the Holy Spirit are (as I may so say) God’s Oh’s after conversion, in as much as they have a tendency thereunto; and God in willing that tendency, doth virtually will men’s return also. Excellent is that of learned [William] Ames; “Deus eminenter et virtuali quadam ratione eatenus vult salutem hominum, quatenus vocat ipsos ad salutem.” Thus with this virtual will God doth will the conversion of reprobates. But then you will say, If so, God’s will is frustrated; for reprobates are never actually converted. I answer, that God’s formal decree is only of the means with their tendencies; and therefore is not frustrated, but fulfilled, in the actual exhibition of such means. And God’s virtual will (though it be of the conversion of reprobates) yet in their non-conversion is not frustrated, because it is not an absolute but conditional will, nisi per ipsos steterit, unless their own voluntary corruption do impede the effect; which in reprobates it always doth. But you will yet reply, Then God’s will is conditional, and by consequence imperfect. To which I answer, with the judicious bishop Davenant, That volitions merely conditional agree not with the perfection of the divine nature; for that were to suspend God’s will for a time, and then post purificatam conditionem, to make it become absolute. But mixtly-conditional volitions, that is, such as are grounded on some absolute decree, may be allowed: as for example, that mixed conditional decree, that if Cain or Judas believe they shall  be saved, is grounded on that absolute decree, that whosoever believes shall be saved. Now this virtual will of conversion of reprobates is not purely conditional, but mixtly conditional, for it results out of God’s absolute decree of the means with their tendencies. Wherefore, notwithstanding these objections, I conclude, That God doth virtually will the conversion of reprobates, so far forth as the means have a tendency thereunto.
Edward Polhill, “The Divine Will Considered in its Eternal Decrees,” in The Works of Edward Polhill (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 1998), 128–129.


This idea can also  be found in Theophilus Gale, among other 17th century theologians. Gale wrote:
God’s Providential Will is that, whereby he is said to will and intend an end, when he in his providence, either gracious or common, affords such means which have an aptitude to produce it. As where God sends his Gospel, he may be said to really intend the salvation of those to whom it is sent, albeit they are not all saved; because he vouchsafeth them those means which have a real aptitude to produce the same, were they but really embraced and improved.

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