Bnonn Tennant (the B is silent)

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Understanding God’s desires

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14 minutes to read A response to my friend Jim regarding the sincerity of Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem in Matthew 23:37. This follows on from my previous argument from divine purpose, in which I rebutted the view that God intends to save all people but is prevented by human free will. Here, I address the dual question of whether my view leads necessarily to confusion or doubt about God’s word, and further interact with Jim’s proposed counter-solution of human autonomy.

Recently, I proffered an argument against God’s intention to save all people without exception. This generated some feedback, started off by my good friend Jim. He raised some concerns which I think are worth discussing separately from the commentary on the original article.

In summarizing his concerns, Jim says,

I don’t know Bnonn, the simplest solution here seems to be a high degree of human autonomy. And if one does not accept that then this is what we end up with—confusion. Like I said most of God’s stated goals in scripture do not come with tags—so how would we know which ones He intends to carry out and which ones are mere desires? If that does not induce confusion and insecurity into the Christian mind, then I don’t know what would. Perhaps He only desires (not intends) to save the elect.

This question ties in nicely with another Jim asked me some time ago, regarding to Matthew 23:37. In this passage, Jesus laments,

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 would not!

As Jim observed to me in an email, “if Christ wanted to gather them, why didn’t he? But if He said He wanted to gather them but really didn’t want to then He stated a falsehood.” I’d like to look at all of this: (I) what is my solution to Matthew 23:37 in view of my previous argument from divine purpose? (II) does this solution lead to confusion, or undermine our confidence in God’s word, either specifically or in a more general sense? (III) is the proposed counter-solution, of a high degree of human autonomy, any better in these regards?

Jim, let me answer as follows—

I. What is my solution?

I’m going to couch this discussion largely in terms of Matthew 23:37, since it gives us a good practical, scriptural example to grapple with. Jesus laments over Jerusalem, saying how often he would have gathered her children—but she refused. The lament suffixes his famous seven curses upon the Scribes and Pharisees. It seems to me that it’s a kind of summation and reflection upon the woes he prescribed, as he is still speaking to the religious leaders present. “Jerusalem” refers to these leaders representatively, and specifically to the Sanhedrin which was responsible for the rejection of the prophets. This being the case, the “children” of Jerusalem are best identified as the nation of Israel in general, represented by the crowd in Matthew 23 in particular.

A brief exegesis

Now 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 your second option, 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.

There is, however, a complicating factor: he is speaking as a man who had already visited Jerusalem on several occasions, and whose ministry had been repeatedly undermined by the religious authorities there. Thus, many commentators take the view that he’s speaking as a human being, rather than as God: describing a real human desire which was evidenced at certain times in his human life on the occasion of his visiting the capital of God’s chosen nation. This seems to me a reasonable interpretation, but I am very skeptical about limiting the sensus plenior of Jesus’ words strictly to his human experience. It’s hard to read this passage and not get the impression of a larger, redemptive view—especially in light of his follow-on comment in verse 38: “See, your house is left to you desolate.” Surely this is referring to God’s final rejection of national Israel as his chosen people, at the dawn of the new covenant era. And this rejection was not a sudden event caused solely by Israel’s own rejection of the Messiah. That was the culmination, certainly; but it was a very long time coming: as God says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.” So I think it’s a little difficult to read Jesus’ comment, “how often would I have gathered your children”, as referring only to those times when he visited Jerusalem. I think a broader historical sweep is in view.

Your question appraised

Now the question at hand, as you phrase it, is “if Christ wanted to gather them, why didn’t he?” (Recall that it’s the children of Jerusalem, being the nation of Israel, whom Christ wished to gather.) The reason Jesus gives that he didn’t gather Israel is: because their religious leaders “would not”. He doesn’t elaborate on this, but it seems pretty safe to say that he has in mind the “blindness” for which he has just repeatedly criticized these teachers in the preceding verses. That is, through their exchanging of the pure law of God for manmade ones, and through their teaching of these to the people, they had made void the word of God, thereby shutting the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces (verse 13), so that their proselytes were even twice as much children of hell as they themselves (verse 15).

This follows necessarily. Doctrinal failure of such a spectacular kind is no better than unbelief in the final analysis. One might as well have been a pagan as try to attain salvation through the statutes laid down by the Pharisees. There was no salvation to be found in the legalistic and works-based righteousness which they taught. And when Jesus speaks of “gathering” the children of Israel, he’s at least referring to bringing them under both his temporal and his eternal protection. How is this to happen except through the teaching of sound doctrine? Is this not why we preach the gospel today—so that God may gather people to himself through that gospel? And if the gospel is preached wrongly, then this end is thwarted to a lesser or greater degree. God is prevented from gathering people to himself if we stifle the means of that gathering, whether actively or passively. Although then God gathered mostly from Israel, while now he gathers from the whole world, the analogy seems to hold. If God genuinely desires the salvation of all people in some sense—if he genuinely wishes to gather them under his wing—then certainly this would have been equally true of the children of Jerusalem. Perhaps more so, since Israel was his chosen nation under the old covenant. And if stifling the gospel today prevents God gathering people as he desires, then certainly the doctrinal error of the Pharisees, taught to Israel, would have prevented him gathering them to him also.

Since we’re talking about people thwarting God’s desires, it’s important to notice how the context of the preventative power frames the situation. When Jesus says that he was prevented because the religious leaders “would not”, he is pitching the natural power of the Sanhedrin against the natural means which God ordained to gather Israel. It can’t be that the Sanhedrin was able to thwart God’s supernatural power with the merely natural power of its members. The means and the prevention must correspond: so if Jesus says that man can thwart God’s desire, then it must be that God is only using natural means in his attempt to achieve that desire. So supernatural means are not in view. After all, we both agree that, regardless of how much freedom people have, God does indeed have the power to gather everyone to him whom he desires. The question isn’t whether he could do this, but why he does not.

My answer given

My answer to that question, as I argued in my previous article, is that he has genuine moral attitudes which are nonetheless contingent upon the very circumstances which he has established toward the end of an opposing desire. I think this argument is very strong; and I think that Matthew 23:37 is typical of the sort of situation it describes. God’s moral attitudes are sincere and genuine by definition. He genuinely does desire the salvation of the lost. So Jesus’ heartfelt lament is indeed heartfelt: he truly did wish to gather the children of Jerusalem. Yet, on my view, I propose that the very action of being prevented from doing so was part of his larger plan. Had he intended to gather those people to himself, he would have, for “he will accomplish all that he purposes”. The Pharisees could not have prevented him doing so; if he could turn the heart of the king of Assyria, he could turn theirs. Or he could strike them down and raise up new teachers from the very rocks. Surely neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate God from those whom he loves.

Therefore, I conclude that God previously determined not to gather the children of Jerusalem, so as to fulfill his plan in creation—specifically, the death of the Messiah and the grafting in of the gentiles to the covenant community. Yet in so doing, he brought about the very circumstances wherein he ardently desired to gather those whom, out of necessity, were to be lost. That is my solution.

II. Does my solution lead to confusion or doubt?

It’s true that understanding a consistently Calvinistic view of God’s intentions can be hard work. Grappling with the “two wills” of God is something which often takes a considerable investment of thought. But I don’t think this is because in principle there is something very complicated or confusing about it; whether it’s couched in classic “two wills” terms, or in terms of desires of intention versus desires of attitude. In fact, I think the opposite is true: it’s really quite simple to see that God may have an overarching desire for one thing, and that to bring about that overarching desire, he must cause a situation in which he also has a desire for some other thing which will go unfulfilled. This is not what is hard to understand about God’s intentions. What is frequently hard is the specific instances where we find this happening. We find God grieving something that he himself caused (for example, Genesis 6:6). Or we find him lamenting something which, in the final analysis, he could have changed (for example, Matthew 23:37). In cases like this, regardless of what we know, we feel like something is amiss. Our intuitive grasp of the situation is out of step with our intellectual understanding of how God’s desires all relate to each other. We are inclined to ask: Why are you lamenting something which you caused?! On a basic level, we doubt God’s sincerity when he expresses grief or anger over something which was totally within his control.

The cause of the confusion

I’ve already given sound reasons and arguments which show that our intuitive sense must be flawed. If we really are to understand God, we can’t rely on our intuitions; we must rely on what he has revealed. As I’ve argued on more than one occasion, we must conform our intuitions to revelation; not vice versa. That is a process which can be uncomfortable, and which can certainly feel confusing; but it’s not as if revelation itself has confused us, nor as if what it reveals is intrinsically hard to understand. Sometimes it is, but I don’t think this is one of those times. The problem is with us; not with Scripture or with God. The problem is that our intuitive reaction to passages like Matthew 23:37 is at odds with our reasoned reaction, and so a sense of confusion naturally arises from this dissonance.

Is God’s word undermined?

Now, although we have no reason to doubt the sincerity of God’s desires of attitude—even when they oppose his desires of intention—you do raise the question of how we can know which is which. If we doubt that God’s stated desires are really desires of intention, then certainly our confidence in them being realized is undermined—however sincere they may be. How can we tell, when he expresses his desire to save all of his elect for example, that he is expressing a real intention, rather than a mere moral attitude?

I think this objection would be a strong one if Scripture only revealed God’s desires about the elect in ambiguous language. If it was limp-wristed and said merely that God wishes to save all his elect, then we would definitely have cause to wonder if this desire will be realized. But that isn’t what Scripture says, and so your concern is put to rest very simply. The Bible doesn’t couch God’s desire in this matter as a mere attitude, or leave any uncertainty as to whether he ultimately intends to save his elect. On the contrary: it couches the matter as a certainty (John 6:35–40); as something guaranteed and absolutely inevitable (Ephesians 1:13–14) because it has been determined before even the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:3–12). So in the case of this specific example, your concern is certainly unfounded.

In a more general sense, naturally we must acknowledge that we have only as much certainty regarding any given divine desire as Scripture warrants. But isn’t this as it should be? God has revealed many of his desires to us; some of them as promises, and some of them not. The promises we know he shall keep; but as regards the others, “the secret things belong to the Lord”. So the answer I give here is that there are certainly cases where it may be unclear whether God will bring about some stated desire; but in matters of importance, such as the salvation of his people, no such uncertainty exists. Where God wishes us to be certain, he has revealed certainly; where he does not, he has not. Surely this is a most orthodox answer to the question, and hardly one which grants leave for insecurity.

III. Is the proposed counter-solution, of a high degree of human autonomy, better at avoiding confusion and doubt?

I think most people would agree that Matthew 23:37, by teaching that human beings are able to resist the will of God, prima facie implies libertarian free will. This is just how our minds work. If we naively assume that everything we need to know about the relationship between our wills and God’s is contained in that single verse, it’s easy to think that it’s teaching a sort of one-to-one correspondence between their respective powers. I would say that returning the passage to the larger context of Scripture as a whole results in a very different, and more nuanced view. But for the sake of argument, let’s assume that libertarian free will is on the table as a possible solution to the problem. Let’s further assume that it doesn’t run aground on the argument I made previously from Isaiah 46:9–11; or on the sizable list of passages which emphasize God’s sovereignty over the human will, such as those I cite in part 3 of my correspondence with Rhett Snell on the mechanics of salvation. It goes without saying that a libertarian view really needs to offer some kind of convincing harmonization between these passages and its philosophical ideas about the will; otherwise it can’t get off the ground, regardless of how appealing it appears as a solution to why God’s desires are sometimes thwarted. However, ignoring this for now, does it actually offer a useful solution in that regard anyway?

Regarding confusion

Considering in particular Matthew 23:37, I don’t see what difference it would make if the Pharisees’ wills were free in the libertarian sense or not. It was not the people of Israel themselves who refused to be gathered underneath God’s wing, but the Pharisees who prevented it by false teaching. We know that God could have removed them, and raised up teachers of sound doctrine in their place. But suppose that he had done this, and that the people themselves then refused to be gathered. If they were libertarianly free they certainly could have. That much is not confusing. The intuitive unease we feel at the Calvinistic view is relieved, because it makes perfect sense to us that Jesus would lament his chosen nation rejecting him of their own free will. If he did everything he could, and they still refused to be gathered, then his lament makes intuitive sense.

But whereas, on the Calvinistic view, we feel an intuitive dissonance but an intellectual harmony with Scripture and reason, on the libertarian view we feel an intuitive satisfaction but an intellectual dissonance. The Calvinistic view uses reason to solve the tension we intuitively feel; but the libertarian view dispels the intuitive tension by avoiding the real difficulty behind it. This remains for the discerning mind to discover. The difficulty is this: if God is the first mover, then he had full knowledge, when he created the world, of everything that would happen in it. That knowledge necessarily included the knowledge of Israel’s refusal to be gathered. Of all the possible worlds which God created, he chose to create this one. There is a possible world in which Israel freely chose the opposite; where they did not refuse to be gathered. There’s no logical reason such a world could not exist; nor that God could not instantiate it. Yet he did not choose to create that world. He chose to create this one.

On what basis, then, can he lament that which he ultimately caused? You see, the libertarian view conceals the difficulty of God’s sovereignty, but it doesn’t solve it. It pushes the problem back a step, out of view, without actually providing an answer. The libertarian and the Calvinist must both answer this question: they must both address the fact that God is the ultimate cause of everything, whether in a somewhat deistic sense, or in a more micro-management sense—and they must both then give a reasonable explanation for how God can lament events which would never have happened had he not acted to bring them about in the first place. Under both the libertarian and the Calvinistic views, God is the necessary, but not the sufficient cause for those things which he laments. So if the libertarian believes the Calvinist has a problem, then whether or not he realizes it, he himself has a problem also. The two views are not as different as he may think.

If he proposes that God has some good reason for bringing about the things he laments, and that he can still express a genuine desire to their contrary despite considering them necessary, then he has offered the exact same solution that the Calvinist has. He’s just taken a more circuitous route. Why then accept libertarianism at all, given all of its other problems? Calvinism, despite initial appearances, is actually the simpler and less confusing option. It also has the overwhelming support of Scripture, in contradistinction to the totally unsupported notion of libertarian free will.

Regarding doubt

But if he can’t accept that God could lament events which he ultimately caused, and if perhaps he believes on philosophical grounds that God could not have known everything which would happen when he created the world if people are genuinely free, then he becomes an open theist or something similar. And aside from being a rank heretic in that regard, he falls victim to your second concern: of undermining our confidence in God’s stated intentions.

That is to say, if God genuinely does not know the outcome of free choices, then even if he has promised to save his elect, he cannot guarantee that this will actually happen, because it isn’t his to decide. How can he know that all of his elect will choose to be saved? Under the Arminian view, at least, God’s promise is predicated on his perfect definite foreknowledge of who will so choose (what that foreknowledge is predicated on, of course, is anyone’s guess)—but under an open view of God’s omniscience no such foreknowledge exists, and God’s “promises” collapse into mere wishful thinking. In fact, the open view plainly contradicts passages like John 6:35–40, since under its own presuppositions, Jesus could not possibly have actually meant what he was saying. There can be no truth in it; whatever certainty the passage appears to convey cannot actually exist. Thus, any confidence whatsoever in God’s word is undermined, and we have no security at all in even those desires which he has plainly stated will be realized.


To summarize my thoughts, then: a consistent and rigorous Calvinistic theology, though it is intuitively difficult for us, establishes a clear, consistent, and unconfusing view of God’s intentions. In fact, despite the intuitive uneasiness it can cause, it is actually a necessary view if we are to harmonize God’s actions in all of Scripture, and satisfy ourselves that he really is sincere and just. It is also a necessary view if we are to avoid undermining Scripture in some way; whether it be in terms of doing harm to its clear meaning, or in terms of undoing the security we have in God’s promises.

The libertarian view, on the other hand, may be intuitively satisfying for us, but it ultimately runs afoul of the exact same question that Calvinism answers. Thus, a libertarian must either be inconsistent in his criticism of Calvinism, or he must be consistent in applying libertarian free will so as to limit God’s omniscience. In the former case, your concerns about Calvinism causing confusion are either unjustified, or they work equally against your proposed counter-solution; in the latter case, your concerns about Calvinism undermining our confidence in God’s word are far more powerfully applied to that counter-solution, since such a high view of libertarian freedom totally precludes any guarantee that God will infallibly and inevitably save a people to himself. Given this, Calvinism clearly stands as a reasonable and accurate reflection of God’s word; libertarianism does not.

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