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.
I had previously allowed Charles Spurgeon to make an appearance and speak on predestination and election. I figured it was only fair to now hear from the great John Wesley, to hear the other side of the story.
(Preached at Bristol, in the year 1740)
To The Reader:
Nothing but the strongest conviction, not only that what is here advanced is “the truth as it is in Jesus,” but also that I am indispensably obliged to declare this truth to all the world, could have induced me openly to oppose the sentiments of those whom I esteem for their work’s sake: At whose feet may I be found in the day of the Lord Jesus!
Should any believe it his duty to reply hereto, I have only one request to make, — Let whatsoever you do, be done inherently, in love, and in the spirit of meekness. Let your very disputing show that you have “put on, as the elect of God, bowel of mercies, gentleness, longsuffering; “that even according to this time it may be said, “See how these Christians love one another!”
Whereas a pamphlet entitled, “Free Grace Indeed,” has been published against this Sermon; this is to inform the publisher, that I cannot answer his tract till he appears to be more in earnest. For I dare not speak of “the deep things of God” in the spirit of a prize-fighter or a stage-player.
“He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how
shall he not with him also freely give us all things?”
1. How freely does God love the world! While we were yet sinners, “Christ died for the ungodly.” While we were “dead in our sin,” God “spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all.” And how freely with him does he “give us all things!” Verily, FREE GRACE is all in all!
2. The grace or love of God, whence cometh our salvation, is FREE IN ALL, and FREE FOR ALL.
3. First. It is free in all to whom it is given. It does not depend on any power or merit in man; no, not in any degree, neither in whole, nor in part. It does not in anywise depend either on the good works or righteousness of the receiver; not on anything he has done, or anything he is. It does not depend on his endeavors. It does not depend on his good tempers, or good desires, or good purposes and intentions; for all these flow from the free grace of God; they are the streams only, not the fountain. They are the fruits of free grace, and not the root. They are not the cause, but the effects of it. Whatsoever good is in man, or is done by man, God is the author and doer of it. Thus is his grace free in all; that is, no way depending on any power or merit in man, but on God alone, who freely gave us his own Son, and “with him freely giveth us all things.
4. But it is free for ALL, as well as IN ALL. To this some have answered, “No: It is free only for those whom God hath ordained to life; and they are but a little flock. The greater part of God hath ordained to death; and it is not free for them. Them God hateth; and, therefore, before they were born, decreed they should die eternally. And this he absolutely decreed; because so was his good pleasure; because it was his sovereign will. Accordingly, they are born for this, — to be destroyed body and soul in hell. And they grow up under the irrevocable curse of God, without any possibility of redemption; for what grace God gives. he gives only for this, to increase, not prevent, their damnation.”
5. This that decree of predestination. But methinks I hear one say, “This is not the predestination which I hold: I hold only the election of grace. What I believe is not more than this, — that God,, before the foundation of the world, did elect a certain number of men to be justified, sanctified, and glorified. Now, all these will be saved, and none else; for the rest of mankind God leaves to themselves: So they follow the imaginations of their own hearts, which are only evil continually, and, waxing worse and worse, are at length justly punished with everlasting destruction.”
6. Is this all the predestination which you hold? Consider; perhaps this is not all. Do not you believe God ordained them to this very thing” If so, you believe the whole degree; you hold predestination in the full sense which has been above described. But it may be you think you do not. Do not you then believe, God hardens the hearts of them that perish: Do not you believe, he (literally) hardened Pharaoh’s heart; and that for this end he raised him up, or created him? Why, this amounts to just the same thing. If you believe Pharaoh, or any one man upon earth, was created for this end, — to be damned, — you hold all that has been said of predestination. And there is no need you should add, that God seconds his degree, which is supposed unchangeable and irresistible, by hardening the hearts of those vessels of wrath whom that decree had before fitted for destruction.
7. Well, but it may be you do not believe even this; you do not hold any decree of reprobation; you do not think God decrees any man to be damned, not hardens, irresistibly fits him, for damnation; you only say, “God eternally decreed, that all being dead in sin, he would say to some of the dry bones, Live, and to others he would not; that, consequently, these should be made alive, and those abide in death, — these should glorify God by their salvation, and those by their destruction.”
8. Is not this what you mean by the election of grace? If it be, I would ask one or two question: Are any who are not thus elected saved? or were any, from the foundation of the world? Is it possible any man should be saved unless he be thus elected? If you say, “No,” you are but where you was; you are not got one hair’s breadth farther; you still believe, that, in consequence of an unchangeable, irresistible decree of God, the greater part of mankind abide in death, without any possibility of redemption; inasmuch as none can save them but God, and he will not save them. You believe he hath absolutely decreed not to save them; and what is this but decreeing to damn them? It is, in effect, neither more not less; it comes to the same thing; for if you are dead, and altogether unable to make yourself alive, then, if God has absolutely decreed he will make only others alive, and not you, he hath absolutely decreed your everlasting death; you are absolutely consigned to damnation. So then, though you use softer words than some, you mean the self-same thing; and God’s decree concerning the election of grace, according to your account of it, amounts to neither more not less than what others call God’s decree of reprobation.
10. But if this be so, then is all preaching vain. It is needless to them that are elected; for they, whether with preaching or without, will infallibly be saved. Therefore, the end of preaching — to save should — is void with regard to them; and it is useless to them that are not elected, for they cannot possibly be saved: They, whether with preaching or without, will infallibly be damned. The end of preaching is therefore void with regard to them likewise; so that in either case our preaching is vain, as you hearing is also vain.
17. Again: How uncomfortable a thought is this, that thousands and millions of men, without any preceding offense or fault of theirs, were unchangeably doomed to everlasting burnings! How peculiarly uncomfortable must it be to those who have put on Christ! to those who, being filled with bowels of mercy, tenderness, and compassion, could even “wish themselves accursed for their brethren’s sake!”
18. Fourthly. This uncomfortable doctrine directly tends to destroy our zeal for good works. And this it does, First, as it naturally tends (according to what was observed before) to destroy our love to the greater part of mankind, namely, the evil and unthankful. For whatever lessens our love, must go far lessen our desire to do them good. This it does, Secondly, as it cuts off one of the strongest motives to all acts of bodily mercy, such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and the like, — viz., the hope of saving their souls from death. For what avails it to relieve their temporal wants, who are just dropping into eternal fire? “Well; but run and snatch them as brands out of the fire.: Nay, this you suppose impossible. They were appointed thereunto, you say, from eternity, before they had done either good or evil. you believe it is the will of God they should die. And “who hath resisted his will?” But you say you do not know whether these are elected or not. What then? If you know they are the one or the other, — that they are either elected or not elected, — all your labour is void and vain. In either case, your advice, reproof, or exhortation is as needless and useless as our preaching. It is needless to them that are elected; for they will infallibly be saved without it. It is useless to them that are not elected; for with or without it they will infallibly be damned; therefore you cannot consistently with your principles take any pains about their salvation. Consequently, those principles directly tend to destroy you zeal for good works; for all good works; but particularly for the greatest of all, the saving of souls from death.
24. This premised, let it be observed, that this doctrine represents our blessed Lord, “Jesus Christ the righteous,” “the only begotten Son of the Father, full of grace and truth,” as an hypocrite, a deceiver of the people, a man void of common sincerity. For it cannot be denied, that he everywhere speaks as if he was willing that all men should be saved. Therefore, to say he was not willing that all men should be saved, is to represent him as a mere hypocrite and dissembler. It cannot be denied that the gracious words which came out of his mouth are full of invitations to all sinners. To say, then, he did not intend to save all sinners, is to represent him as a gross deceiver of the people. You cannot deny that he says, “Come unto me, all ye that are weary and heavy laden.” If, then, you say he calls those that cannot come; those whom he knows to be unable to come; those whom he can make able to come, but will not; how is it possible to describe greater insincerity? You represent him as mocking his helpless creatures, by offering what he never intends to give. You describe him as saying on thing, and meaning another; as pretending the love which his had not. Him, in “whose mouth was no guile,” you make full of deceit, void of common sincerity; — then especially, when, drawing nigh the city, He wept over it, and said, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee; how often would I have gathered thy children together, — and ye would not;” ethelesakai ouk ethelesate. Now, if you say, they would, but he would not, you represent him (which who could hear?) as weeping crocodiles’ tears; weeping over the prey which himself had doomed to destruction!
25. Such blasphemy this, as one would think might make the ears of a Christian to tingle! But there is yet more behind; for just as it honours the Son, so doth this doctrine honour the Father. It destroys all his attributes at once: It overturns both his justice, mercy, and truth; yea, it represents the most holy God as worse than the devil, as both more false, more cruel, and more unjust. More false; because the devil, liar as he is, hath never said, “He willeth all men to be saved:” More unjust; because the devil cannot, if he would, be guilty of such injustice as you ascribe to God, when you say that God condemned millions of souls to everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels, for continuing in sin, which, for want of that grace he will not give them, they cannot avoid: And more cruel; because that unhappy spirit “seeketh rest and findeth none;” so that his own restless misery is a kind of temptation to him to tempt others. But God resteth in his high and holy place; so that to suppose him, of his own mere motion, of his pure will and pleasure, happy as he is, to doom his creatures, whether they will or no, to endless misery, is to impute such cruelty to him as we cannot impute even to the great enemy of God and man. It is to represent the high God (he that hath ears to hear let him hear!) as more cruel, false, and unjust than the devil!
DELIVERED ON SABBATH MORNING, SEPTEMBER 2, 1855, BY THE
REV. C. H. SPURGEON,
AT NEW PARK STREET CHAPEL, SOUTHWARK.
“But we are bound to give thanks always to God for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, because God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth: Whereunto he called you by our gospel, to the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.”—2 Thessalonians 2:13, 14.
IF there were no other text in the sacred word except this one, I think we should all be bound to receive and acknowledge the truthfulness of the great and glorious doctrine of God’s ancient choice of his family. But there seems to be an inveterate prejudice in the human mind against this doctrine; and although most other doctrines will be received by professing Christians, some with caution, others with pleasure, yet this one seems to be most frequently disregarded and discarded. In many of our pulpits it would be reckoned a high sin and treason to preach a sermon upon election, because they could not make it what they call a “practical” discourse. I believe they have erred from the truth therein. Whatever God has revealed, he has revealed for a purpose. There is nothing in Scripture which may not, under the influence of God’s Spirit, be turned into a practical discourse: for “all Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable” for some purpose of spiritual usefulness. It is true, it may not be turned into a free-will discourse—that we know right well—but it can be turned into a practical free-grace discourse: and free-grace practice is the best practice, when the true doctrines of God’s immutable love are brought to bear upon the hearts of saints and sinners. Now, I trust this morning some of you who are startled at the very sound of this word, will say, “I will give it a fair hearing; I will lay aside my prejudices; I will just hear what this man has to say.” Do not shut your ears and say at once, “It is high doctrine.” Who has authorized you to call it high or low? Why should you oppose yourself to God’s doctrine? Remember what became of the children who found fault with God’s prophet, and exclaimed, “Go up, thou bald-head; go up, thou bald-head.” Say nothing against God’s doctrines, lest haply some evil beast should come out of the forest and devour you also. There are other woes beside the open judgment of heaven—take heed that these fall not on your head. Lay aside your prejudices: listen calmly, listen dispassionately: hear what Scripture says; and when you receive the truth, if God should be pleased to reveal and manifest it to your souls, do not be ashamed to confess it. To confess you were wrong yesterday, is only to acknowledge that you are a little wiser to-day; and instead of being a reflection on yourself, it is an honour to your judgment, and shows that you are improving in the knowledge of the truth. Do not be ashamed to learn, and to cast aside your old doctrines and views, but to take up that which you may more plainly see to be in the Word of God. But if you do not see it to be here in the Bible, whatever I may say, or whatever authorities I may plead, I beseech you, as you love your souls, reject it; and if from this pulpit you ever hear things contrary to this Sacred Word, remember that the Bible must be the first, and God’s minister must lie underneath it. We must not stand on the Bible to preach, but we must preach with the Bible above our heads. After all we have preached, we are well aware that the mountain of truth is higher than our eyes can discern; clouds and darkness are round about its summit, and we cannot discern its topmost pinnacle; yet we will try to preach it as well as we can. But since we are mortal, and liable to err, exercise your judgment; “Try the spirits whether they are of God;” and if on mature reflection on your bended knees, you are led to disregard election—a thing which I consider to be utterly impossible—then forsake it; do not hear it preached, but believe and confess whatever you see to be God’s Word. I can say no more than that by way of exordium.
Open your Bibles and turn to John 15:16, and there you will see that Jesus Christ has chosen his people, for he says, “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain: that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it you.” Then in the 19th verse, “If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you.” Then in the 17th chapter and the 8th and 9th verses, “For I have given unto them the words which thou gavest me; and they have received them and have known surely that I came out from thee, and they have believed that thou didst send me. I pray for them: I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me; for they are thine.” Turn to Acts 13:48: “And when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad, and glorified the word of the Lord; and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed.” They may try to split that passage into hairs if they like; but it says, “ordained to eternal life” in the original as plainly as it possibly can; and we do not care about all the different commentaries thereupon. You scarcely need to be reminded of Romans 8, because I trust you are all well acquainted with that chapter and understand it by this time. In the 29th and following verses, it says, “For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the first-born among many brethren. Moreover, whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified. What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us? He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things? Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect?” It would also be unnecessary to repeat the whole of the 9th chapter of Romans. As long as that remains in the Bible, no man shall be able to prove Arminianism; so long as that is written there, not the most violent contortions of the passage will ever be able to exterminate the doctrine of election from the Scriptures.
And now, lastly, to the ungodly. What says election to you? First ye ungodly ones, I will excuse you for a moment. There are many of you who do not like election, and I cannot blame you for it, for I have heard those preach election, who have sat down, and said, “I have not one word to say to the sinner.” Now, I say you ought to dislike such preaching as that, and I do not blame you for it. But, I say, take courage, take hope, O thou sinner, that there is election. So far from dispiriting and discouraging thee, it is a very hopeful and joyous thing that there is an election. What if I told thee perhaps none can be saved, none are ordained to eternal life; wouldst thou not tremble and fold thy hands in hopelessness, and say, “Then how can I be saved, since none are elect?” But, I say, there is a multitude elect, beyond all counting—a host that no mortal can number. Therefore, take heart, thou poor sinner! Cast away thy despondency—mayest thou not be elect as well as any other? for there is a host innumerable chosen. There is joy and comfort for thee! Then, not only take heart, but go and try the Master. Remember, if you were not elect, you would lose nothing by it. What did the four Syrians say? “Let us fall unto the host of the Syrians, for if we stay here we must die, and if we go to them we can but die.” O sinner! come to the throne of electing mercy, Thou mayest die where thou art. Go to God; and, even supposing he should spurn thee, suppose his uplifted hand should drive thee away—a thing impossible—yet thou wilt not lose anything; thou wilt not be more damned for that. Besides, supposing thou be damned, thou wouldst have the satisfaction at least of being able to lift up thine eyes in hell, and say, “God, I asked mercy of thee and thou wouldst not grant it; I sought it, but thou didst refuse it.” That thou never shalt say, O sinner! If thou goest to him, and askest him, thou shalt receive; for he ne’er has spurned one yet! Is not that hope for you? What though there is an allotted number, yet it is true that all who seek belong to that number. Go thou and seek; and if thou shouldst be the first one to go to hell, tell the devils that thou didst perish thus—tell the demons that thou art a castaway, after having come as a guilty sinner to Jesus. I tell thee it would disgrace the Eternal—with reverence to his name—and he would not allow such a thing. He is jealous of his honour, and be could not allow a sinner to say that.
But ah, poor soul! not only think thus, that thou canst not lose anything by coming; there is yet one more thought—dost thou love the thought of election this morning? Art thou willing to admit its justice? Dost thou say, “I feel that I am lost; I deserve it; and that if my brother is saved I cannot murmur. If God destroy me, I deserve it; but if he saves the person sitting beside me, he has a right to do what he will with his own, and I have lost nothing by it.” Can you say that honestly from your heart? If so, then the doctrine of election has had its right effect on your spirit, and you are not far from the kingdom of heaven. You are brought where you ought to be, where the Spirit wants you to be; and being so this morning, depart in peace; God has: forgiven your sins. You would not feel that if you were not pardoned; you would not feel that if the Spirit of God were not working in you. Rejoice, then, in this. Let your hope rest on the cross of Christ. Think not on election, but on Christ Jesus. Rest on Jesus—Jesus first, midst, and without end.