Continued from part 3, on the objective grounds for faith
This objection is, in my view, the least compelling of those I’m going to consider. Generally speaking, it focuses on the sincere offer of the gospel—which non-Owenists typically uphold—and tries to show that it forces inconsistency or irrationality on God. That is, if salvation is sincerely offered to everyone, then it follows that God must in fact desire the salvation of everyone. If he didn’t so desire, then he would be insincere to so offer.
This seems to me a sound argument which does reflect what non-Owenists believe; in contrast to an argument sometimes forwarded, but which is unsound, that if Jesus died for everyone, then God must desire the salvation of everyone. Given my discussion of federal headship and forensic imputation in part 1 of this series, it should go without saying that this conclusion doesn’t necessarily follow (even if it be true for other reasons). God may have no desire whatsoever for the salvation of the reprobate, yet the nature of federal headship would still make it true that Jesus “died for everyone” in the sense that his cross-work is available to everyone.
The upshot is that unlimited satisfaction is said to make God conflicted and irrational—since, as John Owen puts it,
They affirm that God is said properly to expect and desire divers things which yet never come to pass. ‘We grant,’ saith Corvinus, ‘that there are desires in God that never are fulfilled,’ Now, surely, to desire what one is sure will never come to pass is not an act regulated by wisdom or counsel; and, therefore, they must grant that before he did not know but perhaps so it might be. ‘God wisheth and desireth some good things, which yet come not to pass,’ say they, in their Confession; whence one of these two things must need follow, —either, first, that there is a great deal of imperfection in his nature, to desire and expect what he knows shall never come to pass; or else he did not know but it might, which overthrows his prescience. The Works of John Owen, volume 10 (The Banner of Truth Trust, 1967); p. 25.
Subsequently, consistent Owenists deny that God can offer the reprobate salvation sincerely, since to offer something sincerely means that you desire the person take it. Since God knows that the reprobate will not take it, he would be irrational to offer it to them. Indeed, since he has decreed that they not take it, it seems plain that he desires the opposite. Vincent Cheung states the matter with his customary force:
The doctrine in question has been called “the free offer,” “the well-meant offer,” and “the sincere offer” of the gospel […] My position is that it makes God into a schizophrenic fool. It is unbiblical and irrational, and thus must be rejected and opposed […] we must not present the gospel as a sincere offer to all, as if God’s “desire” can differ from his decree, as if God could or would decree against his “desire” (when Scripture teaches that he decrees what he desires—that is, his “good pleasure”—and what he desires, he decrees and makes certain), and as if it is possible for even the non-elect to be saved […]
There are three main faults with this objection:
1. Unlimited satisfaction doesn’t necessitate the sincere offer
None of the arguments I’ve given for a universal scope to Jesus’ satisfaction, in and of themselves, necessitate the view that God offers the gospel to the reprobate. As far as I can see, the sincere offer is really a separate issue from the scope of the atonement. My argument that the universal gospel call is undermined if the satisfaction is limited does not require that the call be couched as an offer. That’s why I used the term “call”—because it doesn’t favor either view. The gospel is certainly a call, regardless of whether it’s a command only, or an offer as well.
Having said that, I think most proponents of unlimited satisfaction do believe that the gospel is more than just a command: they do believe that God offers salvation sincerely to the reprobate. Certainly I do. Therefore, it behooves me to defuse the Owenist’s objection in other ways.
2. If it succeeds, it refutes Owenism as well
The Owenist is either being severely myopic in making this objection, or he’s engaging in some monumental special pleading. To show what I mean, let’s simply plug Owen’s claim into his own view. He says that “to desire what one is sure will never come to pass is not an act regulated by wisdom or counsel.” But he believes the gospel call is a command—and does God not desire or expect his commands to be obeyed? Surely it isn’t even in question that in some sense God desires what he commands, even if only in the sense that his commands are “holy and righteous and good” (Romans 7:12), since they are reflections of his own character. And because they are reflections of his own character, because “just and upright is he,” he has “pleasure in uprightness” (1 Chronicles 29:17) and indeed “loves righteous deeds” (Psalm 11:7). Do I even need to mention that to love something is, by definition, to desire it in some sense?
Given this, the Owenist’s objection refutes his own view as well! If God really does desire his commands to be obeyed (in whatever sense) when he knows that they will not be obeyed, then he must not be acting in a way “regulated by wisdom.” To avoid shooting himself in the foot with his own argument, the Owenist would have to say that God in no sense desires what he nonetheless commands—which is surely absurd and nothing but hyper-Calvinism.
Similarly and conversely, if one hates something, then in some sense one doesn’t desire it. Yet, God is “not a God who delights in wickedness” but one who “hates all evildoers” (Psalm 5:4–5). Given the argument above, surely it is equally true that to not desire what one is sure will come to pass demonstrates just as much of a failure of God’s wisdom and counsel? Under any Calvinistic view, God decrees everything which comes to pass. So, in making this argument, the Owenist is really not thinking things through.
3. The mistake of assuming that God cannot entertain contingent desires
If the Owenist insists on biting the bullet here, he is left claiming either that God cannot desire what he decrees, or that he cannot desire what he commands. In fact, Vincent Cheung seems to plainly affirm the latter, saying that we must not pretend “as if God’s ‘desire’ can differ from his decree, as if God could or would decree against his ‘desire’,” because “Scripture teaches that he decrees what he desires” “and what he desires, he decrees.” Vincent thus draws an exclusive relationship between God’s decrees and his desires, so that if—and only if—God has decreed something, then he desires it. This necessarily means that if God has not decreed something, he does not desire it. As I argued to Ron Di Giacomo, who takes a very similar view, while it’s certainly true that God decrees something if and only if he desires it, it cannot be commensurately true that he desires something if and only if he decrees it. In fact, it is this view which makes God insane, since under it he in no sense desires that his commands always be followed—in which case they become unintelligible as moral imperatives.
For example, if there is no sense in which God desires all people to repent, then why does he command it? It goes without saying that since he has commanded it, all people ought to do it. But what does it mean for God to absolutely not desire what ought be done; and instead absolutely desire what ought not be done? Surely this is a genuine self-contradiction, as opposed to the merely superficial appearance of contradiction entailed by the gospel offer, where God has multiple desires regarding the same situation. Ultimately, if the Owenist’s objection does succeed here, he commits himself to believing that, in some situations, God desires what is evil while in no sense desiring the opposite.
This is an absurd view of God—one where he appears to unequivocally desire that which is completely contrary to his character, while not desiring in any sense its antithesis, even though it conforms to his character. The only way to make sense of such a view is to assert that God has no desires or attitudes or intentions toward anything whatsoever, except those desires and attitudes and intentions he has toward his ultimate purpose. But what possible justification can there be for such an extreme notion? Can I not simply deny this as plainly absurd given all the times where God evidences genuine, albeit contingent desires? As I wrote about Jesus’ lament in Matthew 23:37, “it must be acknowledged, and not downplayed, that Jesus is evidencing a sincere and heartfelt lament. As Matthew Henry puts it, ‘the repetition is emphatical, and bespeaks abundance of commiseration.’ So we can’t accept […] that Jesus didn’t really want to gather Israel, despite saying that he did. That would be a plain falsehood, and God cannot lie. It must be the case that our Lord genuinely did want what he said he wanted.” He simply wanted it less than what he had already decreed as the plan for his glory—indeed, his desire was contingent on that very plan, which required Israel to not be gathered. So this one passage alone refutes the Owenist’s objection.
As regards the atonement specifically, I argue with Bruce Ware that
God’s intentions in the death of Christ are complex not simple, multiple not single: 1) Christ died for the purpose of securing the sure and certain salvation of his own, his elect. 2) Christ died for the purpose of paying the penalty for the sin of all people making it possible for all who believe to be saved. 3) Christ died for the purpose of securing the bone fide offer of salvation to all people everywhere. 4) Christ died for the purpose of providing an additional basis for condemnation for those who hear and reject the gospel that has been genuinely offered to them. 5) Christ died for the purpose of reconciling all things to the Father. Bruce Ware, ‘Extent of the Atonement: Outline of The Issue, Positions, Key Texts, and Key Theological Arguments’
Put simply, I deny the premise that it’s somehow irrational for God to desire a thing which he knows won’t occur. It is entirely congruent that he entertain a genuine affection toward the reprobate, despite that it will never see fruition. More, it is a logical necessity: in creation, he brings about the circumstances he most desires—a world of sinners who won’t all be saved, so that he may be most glorified—and in doing so he necessarily instantiates circumstances wherein he contingently desires the salvation of those already chosen to be lost. Do not the mere facts of (a) his perfect moral character, and (b) the existence of these lost sinners necessitate that he in some sense desires the very thing he has decreed from eternity will not occur? The desire is predicated upon the circumstances which deny its fulfillment (his plan in creation; the ultimate purpose of his will)—yet it is still real. But by merit of the fact that it is established on the basis of his greater intention to reprobate the sinners towards whom he feels it, it is neither fulfilled nor frustrated. To be frustrated, it would have to be in opposition to his greater desire to glorify his name—but certainly he consented to entertain this lesser desire, and to not fulfill it, when he established his plan in creation from eternity. Given this internal consent, I can’t see any way in which he may rightly be called frustrated.
Owenists (if they are consistent) must believe that God’s moral nature does not entail any attitude of benevolence toward even the most wretched of damned sinners. But that is not how Calvinists have traditionally understood God’s character. That does not describe a God who is love (1 John 4:8), but merely a God who has love. It does not describe a God who is so perfect that he loves even his enemies, but a God who does no more than the tax collectors by loving his friends (Matthew 5:43ff). So it seems to me that Owenists are setting up God as having to be a certain way in order to conform to some platonic ideal of their own making, and then pushing and pulling on Scripture to make it fit. And not to sound uncharitable, but that is a kind of idolatry.