The past few weeks we have been exploring the wonders of God’s sovereign control of the salvation of His church. We have done this because in our study of the book of Romans, we have come to a text in Romans 8:29-30 where the heavy theological issues of predestination and election are explicitly raised by Paul. As we look ahead to chapter nine, these issues are fleshed out even more broadly. We want to present these texts in such a manner that we would delight in the truths of the predestination and election of the church. Because that is true, we must first spend some time wiping away some of the confusion which surrounds these doctrines which hold that God is in absolute control of who is saved and who is not. That is, He chooses or elects those who are to be saved and it is HIS work in election, NOT the free will of a person which ultimately determines whether a person inherits eternal life.
I had hoped we would be able to get back to the texts at hand in Romans eight this week, while at the same time finishing up the ground work which needs to be laid to best understand them. It has, however become clear to me that one question about predestination, which we alluded to last week, is so important that it deserves an entire message to itself if we are to be comprehensive and not duck the tough questions surrounding it.
The question we said we would deal with this week is, how do you reconcile biblical texts which teach God desires to save ALL people, with the biblical truth we have been looking at lately? For the sake of balance, we must also give some texts which indicate God’s desire that ALL people be saved. We see this in 2 Peter 3:9 “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” Here, Peter says that God doesn’t want “anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” Paul, who writes so clearly and so powerfully about predestination and election in Romans eight and nine also affirms this other truth in 1 Timothy 2:4 where he says that God “…wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” These texts tell us God desires that ALL people be saved. The question is, how do you reconcile this with our understanding of election? When you look at these texts and the texts we have been looking at supporting election, that God has decreed that only CERTAIN people, His elect people will be saved, it seems that the Bible affirms BOTH truths, but how can this be?
Let’s begin the answer by asserting that these seemingly competing truths of election “versus” God’s desire to save all is NOT the only example in the Bible where God appears to have two, seemingly contradictory wills. In other words, when you study the bible carefully you see God, on several occasions, willing two seemingly contradictory outcomes. Let’s support that claim by looking at some examples of this. The first, we have already examined in another context and that is the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. It is clear that the Father desired Christ to be crucified so that His death might provide a way for sinners to be made right with Him.
It is equally clear that those who crucified Him engaged in sinful behavior God hates and forbids in Scripture. Herod, Pilate, the religious leaders and the Jews they had managed to raise against Jesus were drenched with sin in their involvement with this process. They lied about Jesus, they hated Jesus, they tortured Jesus, they cast lots for his clothes, they killed Jesus and they pierced Jesus. ALL of those acts are expressly forbidden by God’s Law and all are sinful. God had issued clear commands against each one of these sinful activities. Yet they were all done to fulfill the Old Testament prophecies which declared it was God’s will that Jesus would die for the sins of His people. How do you reconcile the seeming contradiction of God’s will seen in His commands AGAINST these particular sins while He also willingly PERMITS these sins in order to accomplish His will? On the one hand, He has a will of command, “don’t lie,” “don’t murder,” etc…, but on the other, He has another will. Namely, that His Son, through these sins would be put to death on the cross for the forgiveness of sin.
We see these two wills of God about the death of His Son stated side by side in Acts 4:27-28. After Peter and John had been released from prison for preaching in the name of Jesus, the believers are praying to God. This prayer is recorded beginning in verse 27 as the people say, “Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. Clearly, there is a recognition that what these people did was sinful in conspiring against God’s “holy servant, Jesus.” But in the next breath they pray in verse 28, “They [these wicked people] did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.” There is an equally clear statement affirming that all of those things which were against God’s will were in some way working to accomplish ANOTHER will, namely to crucify Jesus for the forgiveness of sins.
Another example of this same, two-wills-of-God dynamic is seen in the earthly ministry of Jesus. In Mark 1:15, Christ tells us the will of God as it relates to His ministry. He says, “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news.” The will of God was that people, in response to the ministry of Christ would repent and believe the good news. Jesus issues a command here—“Repent.” But look ahead to chapter four. Jesus had just delivered the parable of the sower. Jesus’ teaching method of choice was through the telling of parables. Matthew 13:34 says, “Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable.” In Mark 4:10-12, after telling this parable of the sower, the text says, “When He [Jesus] was alone, the twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them, The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, [quoting Isaiah six,] “they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven.”
Here Jesus makes an astonishing statement! He says one reason he teaches in parables was so that His message would NOT be understood by everyone so that not everyone would repent and receive forgiveness. The parables, with their veiled quality, were intentionally veiled so that not everyone would understand. So here in Mark, within three chapters of each other, you have Jesus stating TWO wills of God as it relates to His ministry. One the one hand, He wills that those who hear his message would repent and believe the good news. On the other, you have that good news intentionally delivered in such a way so as to restrict certain people from understanding it. Again we have a case where God wills something but he [to quote one scholar] “acts in a way to restrict the fulfillment of that will.” How do those things fit together?
There is the illustration of Pharaoh which we have repeatedly raised in other contexts. On the one hand, God tells Moses in Exodus chapter eight that His message to Pharaoh should be, “Let my people go.” God wills by divine command that Pharaoh release the Hebrew slaves. But four chapters earlier, God tells Moses in 4:21, “…When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders I have given you the power to do. But I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go.” Again we see God commanding something [let my people go] that He in some way acts to restrict by hardening Pharaoh’s heart. How does that fit together?
One more example just to drive the point home. When Samuel was a boy, one of the priests was named Eli. Eli had two sons named Hophni and Phineas and they were unholy terrors. As priests, they were so immoral in their conduct they had made a mockery of temple worship. In First Samuel 2, Eli chastises his sons with a severe rebuke. In 2:25 we read their response to this rebuke. It says, “…His sons, however did not listen to their father’s rebuke…” Why not? The most readily apparent answer if we were to fill in the rest of the verse would be, “because they were exceedingly sinful and would not attend to the words of their father.” That was doubtless true, but the reason they didn’t respond according to verse 25 was because, (quoting now) “it was the Lord’s will to put them to death.” God wanted to make an example of them so He in some way superintends in this situation so as to blunt the effect of their father’s rebuke. God hated their sin and in one sense clearly willed that they respond to their father’s rebuke. But in some way, He restricted their repentance of the sin because he wanted to put them to death.
Now, we MUST SEE that in all of this God NEVER causes or is the author of sin. He simply permits sin and directs sin to accomplish His decreed will. We must also see that this dynamic within election, which shows God having two, different wills about something--on the one hand desiring all people to be saved, but on the other choosing only the elect to be saved—is not unique just to the issue of election. This is part of how God has worked in many contexts. How are we to respond to this? There are at least three options open to us. First, we can do what many evangelicals do. We can act as if these texts with their paradoxes simply don’t exist. We may have read them in our devotions and decided to skip over the difficulties they present. “Why exert the energy to try to find resolution when surely somewhere out there is an answer that will not offend my way of thinking?” Many in the church today think these kinds of texts cannot actually MEAN what they say and without any basis in fact boldly declare, “Because MY God would never do the kind of things this text says, it must mean something OTHER than what it says.” That enables us to duck the hard issue, but the price we pay for doing that can be exquisitely high! When we think that way, what we can unknowingly be doing is this: creating a god who is different from the One revealed in the Bible because the Bible clearly presents a God who indeed DOES do these kind of things. In so doing, we are asking the God of the Bible to sit down and be quiet while we create another god—a mongrel deity. By mongrel I mean that part of His character is rooted in the pages of Scripture, but other parts, the parts that seem hard to understand or just plain hard, we re-form into a more user-friendly god.
A second option is to follow the liberal scholars who say we should not place much stock in the Bible because it is full of contradictions like this one. Then, having released themselves of any infallible, truly authoritative, external source of truth about God, they are free to create THEIR own god who “understands” and accepts their sin and who mysteriously manages to have the same world view and value system that they do. They have a god who basically agrees with them on all the major issues of the day and when they become enlightened by the popular culture and change their mind about a given issue, God mysteriously moves with them and the culture in that change. The liberal sees NO contradiction in a god who, in 1939 was steadfastly opposed to a certain behavior and called it “sin” but who, in 1999 readily accepts that same behavior. He always seems to share their current set of beliefs and the Bible, though it has some inspirational value, shouldn’t be considered authoritative over us because it is to them unreliable as an authoritative guide—its full of these kind of contradictions.
A third and best option is this. We can make an earnest effort to see God the way the Bible presents Him without caving in to either of the above temptations and realize that God will not fit into the boxes we have so neatly created for Him. Instead of editing him through self-imposed shallowness or rejection of His sacred text, we can give Him room to be God and embrace the paradoxes His infinite Person presents to us. This issue we have just presented is not a new quandary or is this a new response to it. Theologians have been grappling with question since the apostles died out in second and third centuries. The response of the Patristic fathers—people like Jerome and Clement, the response of Augustine and the Reformers, Luther, Calvin and the rest is still the best. This is because it is the only one that allows these difficult texts to speak for themselves. This approach refuses to attempt to duck the difficulties and does not compromise the inspiration and authority of Scripture. This response goes something like this.
In each of the instances we cited where God wills in two different outcomes we see what has been called “a will of command” and “a will of decree.” Let’s explain. In regard to the crucifixion, God had issued commands against lying, torturing, killing the innocent—His will of command is clear. But He also had decreed that He would show forth the depth of His love and mercy and grace by allowing His Son to be crucified. That was His will of decree. In the case of Pharaoh, His will of command was, “Let my people go.” But His will of decree was that He would show forth His power through the plagues and parting of the Red Sea and that required that Pharaoh to resist His will of command. In the case of the parables, Christ’s command was that people would repent in response to His teaching. But his will of decree was that His sovereign control over who would respond to that teaching would be manifest by revealing the truth of the teaching to only certain people. He did this by using parables which would limit the number of those who repented to those who He would cause to repent to in response them. In the case of Eli’s son’s, God’s will of command was the same as with all sin, that the sons would stop sinning. But God’s decreed will was to show forth His holiness and justice, making an example of them by executing them.
Notice two things about these decreed wills. First, these instances of God’s decreed will were secretive in a sense. At the time of Christ’s death no one understood that all of this was coming to pass to fulfill the will of God as seen in Old Testament prophecy about the suffering Messiah. If this had been clearly understood by the disciples, they would have reacted very differently to the cross. Instead of being emotionally devastated by it, they would have celebrated it as God’s perfect atoning sacrifice. God’s decreed will with Pharaoh was secretive as well. Only Moses (as far as we know) knew that God was hardening Pharaoh’s heart so as to show forth God’s mighty power. Likewise, no one knew at the time the reason the sons of Eli did not respond to their father’s rebuke was because God wanted to execute them. And finally, only a few people were told that one reason Jesus taught in parables was because it veiled the truth from people whom God did not want to repent. This will of decree was secretive in contrast to the will of command which was overtly stated or found in the law.
Second, the purpose of the will of decree was and is always the same. That is, that God might be glorified in some way. That is, that God might display something glorious about His character. In the example of the cross, the will of decree was given so that God might be glorified as He manifested the depth of his mercy and grace and love in that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” In the case of God restricting what He had commanded by hardening Pharaoh’s heart, this was done so that God would be glorified as Moses, through the plagues and parting of the Red Sea displayed the wonders of God’s power. With Hophni and Phineas, God decreed that the sons would die so that He might be glorified through the manifestation of His justice as He later executed both of these wicked men on the same day. And the parables were veiled by the decree of God so that God would manifest that it was HE, not the people who decided who would respond to the teaching of Jesus and thus display God’s glory in his sovereign control over salvation. The bottom line is the glory of God.
In each of these instances there are two divine wills at work. One, his will of command is in each case explicitly found in Scripture. God’s other will was part of His then undisclosed agenda to show forth His glory through the sins of others. New Testament scholar, I. Howard Marshall puts it this way, “We must certainly distinguish between what God would like to see happen and what He actually does will to happen, and both of these can be spoken of as God’s will.” God is truly compassionate and merciful and in a very real sense wants all people to come to repentance. But he values something more highly than the salvation of everyone.
In a brilliant essay on this topic, John Piper brings out a profound truth. Piper’s point is this: in truth, whether you are reformed in your theology or not, you believe God has two wills. Think about it. If you believe that God wants all to be saved, how do you explain why all are NOT saved? If God wants all to be saved and has the power as the omnipotent Creator to save everyone, why doesn’t He? There must be something He values more highly than saving everyone. Whatever side you are on, you must admit that God has two wills. There are those who believe that God doesn’t save everyone, in spite of His desire to save everyone because He refuses to trample on a person’s free will to coerce them to “decide” to become a Christian. Even though God wants everyone saved, He will not force anyone to be saved. There are two wills there. One, that God wants everyone saved and two, that God will not force anyone to be saved. He wants all to be saved, but what He wants more is to preserve a perfectly free will to choose NOT to be saved.
The reformed belief system also admits that God wants everyone to be saved, but to the reformed, what God wants more is NOT the preservation of so called “free will,” but the manifestation of His glory in exercising sovereign control over everyone who is saved. In both cases, God has a higher agenda than saving everyone even though at one level He does want to save everyone. No matter what you believe about this, you believe God has two wills. The question is, do you think the reason that God does not choose to will everyone saved even though He wants to save everyone is because He places supreme worth on human self determination or His glory. Everyone in this room has had two wills about something. The classic illustration has to do with parenting. No parent wants to discipline their child. It is an unpleasant task. The will of the parent is to spare their child a spanking (or whatever). But in spite of their desire to spare their child, they go ahead and do the discipline. Why? Because though they want to spare their child pain, they value something more highly than that. They value that child’s character development more highly than they value sparing him from pain, so they discipline. Saying that God has two wills is not theological double talk. It is supported by the Scripture and the necessity of having two wills on some issues is seen in our own lives as well.
That concludes this brief series on the character of God and the gospel. For those who have been encouraged and convinced by it, our prayer is that the remainder of Romans eight and nine will be a glorious blessing as it should be. For those who still don’t buy into this system of theology, please know two things. First, being reformed in your theology is no litmus test for fellowship in the church of Christ and certainly not in this church. We can agree to disagree on this issue and still love the stuffing out of each other as Christ would have us do.
But the second question for those who still don’t buy into this is, why not? If you have made a careful study of the pertinent texts and have simply come to a different conclusion, bless you. But if you haven’t studied the issues but just FEEL that it is wrong, make sure your theology comes out of the book and not your feelings. Having a God who controls your salvation and the salvation of your loved ones is ALWAYS going to be counterintuitive because our intuition, our culturally conditioned feelings will always tell us that for God to be fair, He has to give everyone a free will choice to be saved. But know this—God is not bound by our fallen understanding of fairness. He is bound only by Himself and His character is revealed in His word. That is the only place we have a right to go to determine what He is like and what He will do in salvation and in any other context. May God give us grace to search the Scriptures and exult in Him.
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