A friend of mine recently asked me an important question, and rather than offer a quick or uninformed answer I decided to write a lengthy article about it. This response will ultimately be covered in three posts, so today’s post will only cover the first section. I hope you’ll take the time to read it, as it is a very important question! I want to give credit where credit is due here, to which I will say I owe a lot of thanks to John Frame’s new magnum opus Systematic Theology.
In the history of Christianity and the realm of theology there is a debate that has been raging since the beginnings of the early church. Today we know this debate as “Arminianism vs. Calvinism,” but the actual terms are not important. It could also be coined as the debate between “free will” and “predestination”, “God’s sovereignty” and “libertarian freedom”, or any number of other terms. I picture this timeless debate as something similar to Rocky vs. Apollo – two skilled opponents who can go punch for punch with each other, ending in what appears to be a stalemate. Is either side of the debate more correct than the other?
One of the questions that is commonly wrapped up in this debate is this: Does God desire the salvation of all people? It is my intention to show that one of these sides is more faithful than the other and gives an accurate and balanced answer to the question. There are many approaches one could take to answering this question, but the approach I am going to take is a systematic approach; that is, what does the entire Bible say about this question? Through a faithful study of the entirety of God’s Word and coming to a better understanding of who He is, we can learn accurate answers and truth to this age-old question.
And in this corner…
Before we can give an accurate answer to the question, it will be helpful to define and state the problem. It is my goal to be faithful to both sides of the argument in this approach.
As I stated above, the question we are trying to answer is “Does God desire the salvation of all people?” There are many proof texts we could use to say “yes” to this question, and I will list many of these below:
Oh that they had such a heart as this always, to fear me and to keep all my commandments, that it might go well with them and with their descendants forever! – Deuteronomy 5:29
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! – Matthew 23:37
Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live? – Ezekiel 18:23
Turn to me and be saved,
all the ends of the earth!
For I am God, and there is no other. – Isaiah 45:22
Two of the key texts in the answer to this question are below:
The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. – 2 Peter 3:9
This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. – 1 Timothy 2:3-4
Now at a first glance the answer to our question appears simple. The obvious and short answer to our question is “yes,” but we must now determine what exactly this means. As we all know, the problem with this answer is not God’s desire, but that not everyone comes to faith and repentance in Christ. Thus we are often (but not only) left with one of two options: either man has the free will to choose God and God’s wills and desires are not effectual, or God is a Universalist and ultimately all will be saved either in this life or the next. There is no room to go into the second option here, other than to quickly say this second option is not biblical and is no option at all.
So if we move forward with the first choice – that God’s will depends on man’s free will – we are left with all sorts of problems. The first of these is that we are no longer dealing with an omnipotent (that is, an all-powerful) God. Here are just a few verses in the Bible that deal with God’s omnipotence and the power of his will:
O Lord, God of our fathers, are you not God in heaven? You rule over all the kingdoms of the nations. In your hand are power and might, so that none is able to withstand you. – 2 Chronicles 20:6
But he is unchangeable, and who can turn him back?
What he desires, that he does. – Job 20:13
No wisdom, no understanding, no counsel can avail against the Lord. – Proverbs 21:30
Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases. – Psalm 115:3
Also henceforth I am he;
there is none who can deliver from my hand;
I work, and who can turn it back?” – Isaiah 43:13
…who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. – Philippians 3:21
Many more passages could be used to defend the omnipotence of God. The point is this: God can and does do whatever he pleases. As scholar and theologian John Frame says:
Such power drives us to worship. No one else has nearly as much power as God. This is an important element in the biblical teaching concerning miracle: in his mighty works, God displays his power, his lordship as control…He can subdue anybody who resists him, and eventually he will. He does things that are proverbially impossible… – Frame, Systematic Theology, 336
This is where the waters become murky. If God is omnipotent, how do we reconcile that with the fact that not all people are ultimately saved? The objection here raised by free will proponents would go something like this: it pleases God to give man free will, otherwise mankind is a robot. God’s plan is consequent of the free will he gave us.
The problem raised by this objection is it does not deal with the tricky subject of predestination and election. Whether you like these words or not, we have to deal with it because it’s in the biblical text – we can’t ignore it. Here are some of the texts that deal with predestination:
I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours. 10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them. – John 17:9-10
No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. – John 6:44
And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed. –Acts 13:48
What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 15 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. 17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” 18 So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. – Romans 9:14-18
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will… – Ephesians 1:3-5
It is here we begin to see the conflict; if God desires all to be saved AND his will and desires are dependent on man’s decision to choose God, how do we reconcile that with predestination? The common answer is that predestination means God foreknows everyone and the decision they will make, so predestination takes into account who will choose God and who won’t. The problem is that this isn’t what these verses say, and trying to make them say that is biblically unfaithful. Take a look at Romans 8:29: For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. This passage says that those whom God foreknew are those whom he predestined – if God foreknows everyone does that mean everyone is predestined? Now we are back to dealing with God as a Universalist. Surely, this attempt to reconcile God’s desire for everyone’s salvation and the concept of predestination is not an adequate answer.
There is a better answer to our current dilemma, one that does free will, God’s sovereignty, his desire for all to be saved, and predestination justice. This answer will become clear to us as we better understand the concept of God’s will, which we will discuss in the next post tomorrow.