Is it God's Desire for All Men to Be Saved?
by John Hendryx
“…This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” - 1 Tim 2: 3, 4
If God desires that all men be saved, but does not actually save all men, some might begin to question to what extent God's desires are genuine. For Him who is omnipotent, everything He desires lies within His power to achieve. This is extremely unlike you and me. I desire my friend's salvation, but I can't make it happen. There's actually very little that I can get through my own power (but this is, of course, where prayer comes in). God, however, can infallibly get everything He desires and accomplish anything He wills, according to His good pleasure. And yet, He doesn't get what He desires. What's the problem? Does His own decretive will overrule His desire? Clearly, He desires me to be more kind and gentle toward my wife. Equally clearly He desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. So, for someone who has the power to obtain His desires, why doesn't God apparently get what He wants? If we say that His desires are subject to (and lesser than) His decretive will, then we may wonder how genuine those desires really are.
Reasoning through the above data, the synergist concludes that the doctrine of unconditional election must be wrong, since this would mean that God has predetermined to graciously save some and leave others in their sin. Instead, if God really desires that all men be saved, the only logical explanation, in their mind, is that election (and therefore God's love) is conditioned on our faith. They further reason that if God desires all mankind's salvation and He doesn't, in fact, save them, even if its within His power, then the God of the Reformers (who teach election and regeneration unto faith) is schizophrenic and proven to be false. Can God genuinely desire AND act in ways that are inharmonious with His determination? Can He desire that my friend be saved and even act in such ways that he/she could be accused of "resisting the Holy Spirit" (1) and, yet at the same time, determine not to save him/her? On a surface level, this actually would appear to be a fairly reasonable argument, but when closely scrutinized, we discover it contains a fatal flaw since it actually turns out to reveal a weakness in the system of the person who raises the issue. In thinking that they have finally defeated the Reformed doctrine of election they actually end up exposing their own Achilles' heel.
Why Does This Line of Reasoning Expose the Weakness of the Questioner's System?
We must not rely purely on our autonomous reason or logic to draw important theological conclusions. Instead, we reason within the framework of the God's Self-revelation (the Scriptures), which alone should be our guide. But lets be clear that this problem of wills is not exclusively a problem for the Reformed Christian, but also for the Synergist/Arminian. Here's why. All Christians will admit that God deisres all men to obey the Ten Commandments and yet acknowledge that this desire is not fulfilled. Further, even the Synergist would have to admit that God has a decretive will that is different from his revealed will with regard to our salvation. Remember, the Synergist holds to the view that God foreknows who will choose Him and elects them based on His prior knowledge of their choice. But here is where the problem arises in their understanding the the Text. No one could consistently say that God foreknew with certainty which sinners would be lost and then claim that it is not within God's will to allow these sinners to be lost. Why did He create them? He knew what their final destiny was even before He created them. With full knowledge that they would not chose Him, it is evidently within God's providence that some sinners be lost, so He obviously has some purpose in it which we human beings cannot fully discern. In this Arminian scheme, God had to create those that He knew would perish, even against His revealed will which desires them to come to faith. Such a contradictory belief makes God subject to Fate. If the synergist were consistent, he would apply the same unhappy conclusion ( he readily applies to the Reformed view), to his own system, but this would be a fatal blow. Unfortunately, many people are content to remain inconsistent and cling to presuppositions that have been demonstrated to be false. So even while the staunch Arminian/Synergist has been shown to believe that, even in his own system, God has more than one will and acts against His clearly revealed statement that He desires all men to be saved, some will still obstinately remain there. This, in spite of the glaring truth that this would leave God acting against his own will, a helpless victim of Fate. Does the Bible have a solution?
How Does The Bible Resolve This Apparent Problem?
Now that this fatal error of the synergist is exposed it is important that we face up to the issue at hand. If God desires all men be saved why does he not save every person? Are their two conflicting wills in God? So, lets begin by answering the question, "Does God desire that all men be saved?" The short answer is “yes", as this is precisely what the text of Scripture says. In Ezekiel 18:23 God rhetorically asks: "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?" Some well-intentioned brothers, who, in the hope of protecting the doctrine of election, even say that we must interpret the above passage to be referring only to God’s chosen people. But Not only do I believe this is exegetically incorrect but totally unnecessary for the following reasons:On close inspection it should be apparent that passages which declare "God's desire for all to be saved" is the same kind of desire in God as His desire that I would be more kind and gentle toward my wife or that all men would obey His commands. Notice in the Ezekiel passage above it speaks of God's desire that people turn from their evil way. It is what God desires them to do and says nothing about what He will accomplish. This aspect of His will is not often fulfilled because this is His revealed will, not his secret will of decree. And we must remember that even believing that Jesus is the Son of God, is itself, a command:
"This is His commandment, that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ...”1 John 3:23
"God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent..." Acts 17:30
It is clear, then, that God desires all men to obey His commands whether they are reprobate or not, and this includes the command to believe. (God holds them responsible for not obeying) To say it another way, God desires that all men come to faith. To conclude otherwise would be equivalent to saying that it is God's will for man to sin (since unbelief is a sin), which would be preposterous, of course. In one sense, It would be against His character to will anyone to do anything but obey His commands. Yet in another sense, it is within His will because He allows it within the framework of His providence. If God commands all men everywhere to repent and His commandment is to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, then there is no other possible conclusion than to say God desires all men, elect and reprobate, to obey His commands, including the command to believe the gospel. In this way, God desires all men to be saved in the same way He desires all men to obey His commands. As I mentioned, this desire (or will) is not His "will of decree" but His "revealed will" (commanded will). The “will of decree” (or secret will) always infallibly comes to pass but His “revealed will” or His commands, although according to His desire, do not infallibly come to pass, as is obvious from the fact that we are all sinners. It is true, God came to save "His people" from their sins, and them only, but the text in 1 Tim 2: 3, 4 & 2 Peter 3:8-9 does not seem to be speaking of this concept (i.e. those the Father has given the Son). It, rather, appears to be referring to God's "revealed will" or what He commands in Scripture to all men (like Thou shalt not kill, etc.). And, from this, it is obvious that God's revealed will does not always come to fruition. In fact, each time we sin we set ourselves against what God revealed will.
So we find that God allows things to happen that He would prefer not to happen. This is referred to by theologians as His permissive (revealed) will. The Scriptures distinguish between God's secret will, embodied in his counsel of foreordination, and God's revealed will, embodied in his law. The two are often denominated God's decretive will and his preceptive will. It is by His decretive will that "He sovereignly brings to pass whatever He decrees, while His permissive will leaves room for the moral actions of His creatures." (R.C Sproul in The Invisible Hand). So we can argue that God's revealed will is an infallible guide for the life of his Church. But his secret will is not meant to be a guide at all. God's Providential hand is simply seen by us as the gradual unfolding of God's secret will. It should be clear to us then that it cannot serve as a guide for our moral behavior nor as a way to postulate who wil be saved. It might be better for the sake of understanding to differentiate these wills as God's commands and his decrees. Man is held accountable for his disobedience to God's commands (revealed will), not God's decrees. His revealed will in his law is for us and is not meant to give us a glimpse into what He plans to do with His secret will.
Deuteronomy 29:29 makes it is clear there are at least two types of wills in God. It says,
"The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever"
The great theologian Jonathan Edwards explained,
"Though He hates sin in itself, yet He may will to permit it, for the greater promotion of holiness in this universality, including all things, and at all times. So, though He has no inclination to a creature's misery [He desires none perish], considered absolutely, yet He may will it, for the greater promotion of happiness in this universality." ("Concerning the Divine Decrees," The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 2 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), pp. 527-28.)
Arminians consider 1 Tim 2: 3, 4 to be one of their pillar texts but they stumble here because what we "ought" to do does not necessarily imply what we "can" do (believe). The Ten Commandments, likewise, speak of what we ought to do but they do not imply that we have the moral ability to obey them. God wills that we obey His commands, but nature ("flesh and blood") never taught us the absolute necessity of fleeing to a righteousness better than our own. Only God can reveal this to us. It is obvious, then, that 1 Tim 2: 3, 4 does not refer to His will of decree, but another type of will (revealed) since it does not infallibly come to pass. The commandments of God were never meant to empower us, but rather, to strip us of trusting in our own ability so that we would come to an end of ourselves. With striking clarity, Paul teaches that this is the intent of Divine legislation (Rom 3:20, 5:20, Gal 3:19,24).
We can also catch a glimpse of the secret and revealed wills at work in the following passage on the crucifixion of Jesus:
"...this Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death." Acts 2:23
God, in this text, predetermines that Jesus will be crucified by the hands of godless men. Now it is clear that God does not desire or will evil, yet he here actually preordains it through godless men because his intent is for our good.. God both desires (in one way) and does not desire (in another way) this redemptive historical event to happen. According to this text, God eternally decreed the crucifixion redemptive historical event, yet when it was carried out in time by sinful men, it was clearly contrary to the moral law, that is, God's commands. Using similar biblical logic, we can see that God, desires the salvation of all men. But it is equally clear that, preferring their sin, none desire to come to Him, thus rebelling against His moral law, flying in the face of His revealed will. He desires them to come but they run the other way. So His secret will mercifully goes into action (John 6:39) and, in love, He saves the persons whom He agreed upon in His eternal counsels.
Jesus, when He came into Jerusalem, saw the Israelites reject Him. He said:
" Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling.” Matt 23:37
Jesus truly mourns over people who are unwilling to come to Him; even the reprobate. He yearns for them to come and holds out His hands to them but they are obstinate and will not come simply because they don’t want to come. He desires that these persons be saved in the sense that He wants them to believe in Him. But they love their sin more than they love their God. This is the natural condition of all men apart from God’s grace. So he desires all men to believe, but he saves only those who He sovereignly sets His affection upon, according to the good pleasure of His will. His reasons for choosing some and not others have not been revealed to us. This is part of His secret counsel or decretive will. But rest assured that God will act according to His perfections and conspire with His wisdom to do what is right. There is, in fact, no better reason in the universe than God wills something to take place. To think otherwise is to presume on God.
So the gospel is declared to all men ... it is news for all to hear, but, due to our natural rebellion and hatred of God, all men reject God. Therefore since men are never found naturally willing to submit in faith to the humbling terms of the gospel of Christ, men will not come into the light (John 14:17; John 10:26; John 6:44; John 3:20; Rom 3:11). But Thanks be to God, who is yet merciful, coming to those He has chosen from eternity giving them eternal life. What they could not do for themselves, He mercifully does for them. Those who "have ears to hear" are the same as those whom God's favor rests. So even the desire for belief itself, like all spiritual blessings, was purchased by Christ on the cross.Other articles on this topic:
(1) The Bible does teach that sinners resist the Holy Spirit every time they refuse to obey the gospel. We have never claimed that the Holy Spirit cannot be resisted. In fact. we see this kind of resistance in the world among unbelievers every day. The Scripture teaches, rather, that the Holy Spirit CAN and DOES make His gracious influences irresistable when He sovereignly chooses to do so (Acts 16:14; John 6:37, 63-65).
(2) A friend of mine sent me the following illustration which often may be true of writers: R. K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, would often cry over the death of her characters. Now here is a very good example of someone decreeing what she does not desire—though absolutely sovereign over her world, she decrees what she does not like for the sake of a higher purpose she herself has established. In a greater and more mysterious way, God has ordained everything that comes to pass, including the death and damnation of the reprobate (who, through their unbelief, have rendered themselves unworthy of eternal life (Acts 13.46), though (in another way) he desires just the opposite for them and takes no pleasure in their ultimate end. So, just as we have always insisted that there’s a sense in which Christ has died for everyone who has ever lived (in the words of Owen, the atonement is unlimited in its sufficiency), even though He only dies redemptively only for the elect; so also we insist that God really does desire and offer salvation to the reprobate, even though he has not elected them, nor will the Son’s death atone for their sins, nor will the Spirit quicken their hearts—God has decreed (in one sense) what he does not desire (in another sense)!