I was recently involved in some discussion with Ron Di Giacomo on his blog Reformed Apologist, regarding God’s desires toward the reprobate. I had posted a comment on the article ‘Does God Desire the Salvation of All?’, in which I disagreed with his conclusion that God does not in any way desire the salvation of those whom he has not elected.
The discussion in the combox proved particularly unfruitful, in part because Ron seemed unwilling to interact with the biblical passages I cited in support of my position; and in part because he has now chosen to reject my further comments on the basis that they do not add significantly to my previous ones—which he believes he has refuted. However, I think he has dismissed my arguments too quickly, perhaps largely because he has interpreted them according to some presuppositions which I myself do not hold. Since this is an important question, particularly in terms of evangelism and of understanding God’s character, I would like to discuss it here. Let me start by giving a brief overview of the debate:
It is Ron’s contention that God cannot desire the salvation of the reprobate in any way because God himself is the one who gives salvation. Since Christ did not die for the reprobate, and the Holy Spirit does not convert them, it is contradictory to state that God desires them to be saved. Ron contends—
the question that should be considered in this regard is not whether God desires the reprobate to turn and live but whether God Himself desires to turn the reprobate so he can live. Cast in that light – is it reasonable to think that the Holy Spirit desires to turn the reprobate toward himself when the Father did not choose the reprobate in Christ? Moreover, Christ did not die for the reprobate, let alone does he pray that the efficacy of the cross would be applied to the reprobate. Consequently, it is not available for the Holy Spirit to unite the reprobate to the finished work of Christ! Does God desire what is not available to Him? Does God desire that the Godhead work at cross purposes? Does God desire contradictions after all?
Comparison with Scripture
My immediate reaction is that, while this line of reasoning may appear to make a good deal of sense, it is plainly contradicted by Scripture. Consider Ezekiel 18:23,31-32, and 33:11—passages which speak specifically of all wicked people within the nation of Israel:
18:23Have 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? 18:31Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? 18:32For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord GOD; so turn, and live. 33:11Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?
Two things are clear from these passages: firstly, that Ron is mistaken to insist that “the question that should be considered in this regard is not whether God desires the reprobate to turn and live but whether God Himself desires to turn the reprobate so he can live”; secondly, that God does indeed desire the reprobate to turn and live.
In the first instance, we see that by artificially redirecting the scope of discourse to God’s intent with regard to his own actions, as opposed to his intent with regard to human actions, the possibility of discussing whether or not he desires the salvation of the wicked in any way other than efficaciously is precluded a priori. That is to say, Ron has attempted at the start to say that we cannot rightly talk about God desiring something which he does not intend to also bring about. In effect, he is redefining the question by asserting that what God desires he always intends, and what he intends he always ordains, and what he ordains he always makes to happen. Therefore, since God does not ordain the salvation of the reprobate, and consequently does not save them, it must be the case that he does not intend that they be saved, and so does desire it.
The basis for this redefinition is a sort of reductio ad absurdum, as follows:
What does it mean that God desires the salvation of the reprobate? Are we to believe that God desires the reprobate to regenerate himself and grant himself union with Christ? Isn’t it Jesus who saves? Isn’t salvation of God after all?
By couching the question in this way, it seems absurd for God to desire what is described. Obviously, since only the Holy Spirit can regenerate man, God would be desiring the impossible if he wanted man to regenerate himself. And it seems, at least superficially, a little irrational for God to desire the impossible in this way.
The difficulty, however, is that this argument simply stands at right angles to Scripture. Here is what we get if we juxtapose the Bible against Ron’s reductio. Ezekiel says, “make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!” (18:31) and, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live” (33:11). Ron asks, implying a negative answer, “Are we to believe that God desires the reprobate to regenerate himself and grant himself union with Christ?” Well, if the answer is “no”, then God commands the reprobate to do something which God himself does not desire them to do. Worse, he solemnly swears by his own life that he does not take pleasure in their death, but rather that they repent and believe (turn and live)—yet this is simply false. But we know that it is impossible for God to lie.
Perhaps Ron will say that I have misunderstood this passage. He is welcome to comment here—I will not censor him. But let him show how, because it seems very straightforward. Indeed, there are others which are equally plain, and corroborate my exegesis:
Ho! Every one who thirsts, come to the waters;
And you who have no money come, buy and eat
Come, buy wine and milk
Without money and without cost (Isaiah 55:1, NASB).
I quote the NASB because the ESV, like many others, very unfortunately leaves off “ho!”—in the Hebrew, howy, an onomatopoeic word meaning “woe” or “alas”. More colloquially we might say, “aiee!” as if, Samuel Rutherford comments,
the Lord were grieved, and said, woe is me, alas that thirsty souls should die in their thirst, and will not come to the waters of life, Christ, and drink gratis, freely, and live. For the interjection, (Heb. Hui) Ho, is a mark of sorrowing…it expresses two things, 1. A vehemency, and a serious and unfeigned ardency of desire, that we do what is our duty, and the concatenation of these two, extremely desired of God, our coming to Christ, and our salvation […] 2. The other thing expressed in these invitations, is a sort of dislike, grief, or sorrow; (’tis a speech borrowed from man, for there is no disappointing of the Lord’s will, nor sorrow in him for the not fulfilling of it) or an earnest nilling and hating, that these two should not go along, as approved efficaciously by us, to wit, the creatures obedience of Faith and life eternal (Christ Dying and Drawing Sinners to Himself, cited from Calvin and Calvinism).
Certainly Isaiah 55 is an invitation demonstrating God’s desire that people be saved—and certainly it is directed to “everyone”, and not merely the elect. It is simply impossible to interpret it as anything other without denying the meanings of the words used. The only way to dismiss it is to suppose that God’s invitation is not sincere in spite of its appearance—but anyone upholding the doctrine of plenary inspiration certainly would be making God out to be a liar in that case. It is not as if human idioms can so completely change God’s meaning as to present the opposite of his real intent. If this were so, he would not have used them to begin with, lest Scripture be unintelligible.
Does God then contradict himself?
The essence of Ron’s objection is that it is self-contradictory for God to desire something which he has already made impossible through his prior action. The problem is not “that God has a priority of opposing desires”—rather, the alleged contradiction arises when we say “God desires what He simply cannot do due to His previous actions in time […] For God to desire the salvation of the reprobate is to say that God – today – desires that Jesus would have died for the reprobate 2000 years ago.”
Does this follow? Firstly, no, because Ron begs the question by falsely assuming that there is no sense in which Christ died for the reprobate (which I discuss also in ‘Thinking more clearly about the atonement’). But since the Father calls all people (Acts 17:30), and the Spirit convicts all people (John 16:8), it is inconsistent to assume that there is no equivalent action on the part of the Son on the cross by which he in some way died for all people. Indeed, all the semantic hand-waving we can muster will not change the plain fact that “God so loved the world that he sent his only son”, and that he commensurately “desires all people to be saved”.
Secondly, it must be recognized that, since salvation in the Old Testament was also through Jesus, the same argument could be made for God’s intentions regarding, say, Cain. That is, “for God to desire the salvation of Cain is to say that God—back then—desired that Jesus would die for the reprobate in however many thousand years.” Exactly what relevance the time period has is quite unclear to me. Since all the events of time are decreed from eternity, it seems far less confusing to simply speak of God’s decree. That which God decrees, he desires. Ron may as well have said that for God to desire the salvation of the reprobate is to say that God desired to decree differently than he has.
But, thirdly, this appears to go back to the question of whether it is genuinely irrational for God to desire that which he has not decreed. More precisely, is it irrational for God to desire something which he has specifically decreed against? Since God has decreed that the reprobate will not be saved, is he irrational if he nonetheless desires that they be saved? Biblically, the answer must be no, because it is clear from Scripture that God does desire the salvation of not only the elect, but the reprobate as well. Therefore, if it appears self-contradictory for God to desire the salvation of all people when he has decreed the salvation only of some, then this is an appearance only.
That said, it is quite plain that there is not even an appearance of contradiction here. Despite that he recognizes a priority of opposing desires in God, Ron appears unable to separate God’s teleological desires and his simple moral desires. That is, he sees no categorical distinction between the ultimate desire of God, which is to glorify his wrath and power through the reprobation of sinners; and the contingent desire of God, which is to save the lost. Put yet another way, God in his plan has brought about a situation in which people require his grace to be saved. He has already predetermined that this would occur for the express purpose of not saving some, because they are objects of his wrath. However, in this exact situation is found the precondition for an invocation of his loving nature—that is, lost sinners in need of grace—which necessarily causes him to desire the salvation of these sinners, whom he has nonetheless chosen to damn. In short, God’s ultimate plan, from which he will not waver, is to create sinners upon whom to pour out his wrath. Yet his very action in carrying out that plan creates a set of conditions in which his nature as love (1 John 4:8) evokes a benevolent attitude toward those sinners, in that he desires them to be saved; even while his nature as holy (Ps 99:9) evokes the attitude upon which he has determined in advance to act, in that he desires them to be punished.
This is hardly an original argument; I first encountered a form of it in Spurgeon, who puts forward the very simple question: do we imagine ourselves to be more benevolent than God? The implications of his question, laid out syllogistically, would look something like this:
- We, as Christians, desire all people to be saved.
- This desire is founded in our love for all people.
- God is infinitely more loving than we are.
- Therefore, a fortiori, how much more does God desire all people to be saved.
This argument seems quite sound to me. Yet Ron wants to say that we ought not to desire the salvation of all people; rather, we should desire the salvation only of those whom God has elected. But of course, this begs the question since it assumes that God himself does not love those whom he has not elected—which would be at odds with his character, and with the previously referenced passages from Scripture.
God’s precepts and decrees
Ultimately, Ron’s view is that God cannot desire one thing, and its opposite, at the same time. This would violate the law of noncontradiction, make God irrational, and disprove the whole Christian worldview. He says as much in the combox of his article. However, Ron has neglected to note that the law of noncontradiction states that one thing cannot be true and not true at the same time and in the same relationship. Since desires are in fact attitudes or intentions in relation to some thing or other, it is simply false to suppose that God cannot entertain opposing desires at the same time. His desires may oppose, yet not be contradictory, because they entail different relationships.
But let us assume for a moment that Ron’s view is correct. God can only desire one thing, and not its opposite. In other words, his desires are unequivocal. This has huge ramifications for our understanding of his precepts and decrees, which Ron explicitly acknowledges (emphasis his):
God’s “will” includes is his determination to damn some. Whereas his revealed precept is that all are required to repent. Watch carefully now. The equivocation comes when one refers to God’s precepts of God as His “will.” Once that is done, it is assumed that the preceptive will is an actual will of desire! In other words, to call precepts a “will” is only one step away from assuming that God desires (i.e. “wills”) that his precepts be obeyed.
Obviously, this is actually false. Ron equivocates himself in this paragraph, since it is conceivable that God may will something—that is, he may desire it—yet not cause it to occur. His desiring something does not necessarily entail his bringing it about. Yet Ron assumes that everything God desires he causes to occur. So a conflation has taken place here wherein God’s desire and his will are treated as the same thing, and his will is always efficacious. But where does this leave his precepts? If God’s desires are unequivocal, and he desires that his precepts not be fulfilled, then on what are the precepts themselves based?
Are not God’s precepts based upon his will also? Do we not in fact speak of God’s preceptive will? Do not his precepts reflect his moral desires, which in turn reflect his character? Of course they do. For God to issue a precept is for God to reveal a course of action which we ought to follow; and the word “ought” implies a moral imperative. Moral imperatives, in turn, are intelligible only in relationship to God’s character, and God’s character dictates his desires. Yet, in Ron’s view, God unequivocally does not desire that his precepts be followed—in which case, how is their implied moral imperative to be made intelligible?
If God unequivocally does not desire all people to repent, then why does he command it? What does it mean for God to unequivocally not desire what ought to happen, and instead unequivocally desire what ought not happen? Surely this is a genuine self-contradiction, as opposed to the merely superficial appearance of contradiction entailed in having multiple desires regarding the same situation? Ultimately, it means that God actually desires what is evil, while in no sense desiring the opposite. Ron admits as much, but this is an absurd view of God—one where he unequivocally desires that which is completely contrary to his character, while not desiring in any way 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 except his teleological ones. That is to say, he has no attitudes or intentions toward anything whatsoever, except those attitudes and intentions he has toward his ultimate purpose.
But if his desires are made intelligible only in terms of their ultimate goal, then he can have no attitude to specific sins in and of themselves. Even though, as sins, they are something which he would not desire in isolation, he is unable to not desire them because the only attitude he has is teleological; and teleologically he desires them. That is to say, since it is necessary to his ultimate purpose that such-and-such sins occur, then he desires that those sins occur, even though it against his character to desire those sins in and of themselves. God’s intentions and attitudes become solely teleological in nature, with no basic moral attitudes being possible. It becomes impossible for him to have any other attitude toward events than that dictated by his ultimate purpose.
This is plainly absurd. It makes God so simple-minded that he cannot even entertain an attitude or intention toward a situation purely on the basis of what that situation is. He cannot entertain an attitude to people based on their moral characters, because his teleological concerns about them preclude it. So he cannot entertain a salvific desire toward the reprobate based on his loving character, because his teleological concerns about those people preclude it. Yet even we humans, simple as we are, are able to entertain highly complex attitudes and intentions. We may have many conflicting desires which we prioritize—some of which we will act upon, and others not, depending on our goals. It is one thing to recognize that God is not a man, and so exercise caution in drawing analogies between our minds and his. It is quite another to say that God is so much less capable than men, who are made in his image, that he is unable to entertain multiple intentions as they are!
The truth is, as plainly stated in Scripture, that God has both teleological and moral attitudes. Teleologically, God may desire the damnation of the reprobate for the sake of his holiness, and purpose it to occur; yet, within this teleological intention, his loving character may still evoke a benevolent desire for their salvation, which he will nonetheless not make efficacious. It would, in fact, be quite contrary to his nature to not have such benevolent affections. It is no more contradictory to affirm this than to affirm that God is both merciful and wrathful; gracious or vengeful; loving or hateful; man or God.