Friday, April 30, 2004

What does God want?

Many years ago there was a debate in Presbyterian circles over the offer of the gospel. Both sides agreed on the existence of a general offer; the bone of contention lay in the question of divine intent. The question was whether God has unfulfilled yearnings. Does God long for things that he never chose to bring to pass?

In good Presbyterian fashion, this controversy made its way all the way up to the General Convention—with a majority report and a minority report. The majority report was written, for the most part, by John Murray, with some editorial input from Ned Stonehouse. The majority report answered the question in the affirmative, while the minority reported answered in the negative.

This debate may strike some readers as one of those provincial, intramural, logic-chopping exercises to which Presbyterians are notoriously prone, having little relevance to the generality of Evangelicals. Calvinists are always going to extremes, are they not?

However, the rise of open theism has conferred a renewed relevance on this old debate, for there is striking parallel between the hermeneutics of open theism and the methods of the majority report.

Indeed, if you give the issue a second thought, there is no question more important or pertinent in life than the question of what God wants for the world. Hence, it is worth our while if we reopen the case.

But before we jump straight into the thick of things, let us refresh our recollection of how one theological tradition answers this question in general:
"If this is God's universe, if he made it and made it for himself, he is responsible for everything that takes place in it. He must be supposed to have made it just as he wished it to be--or are we to say that he could not make the universe he wished to make, and had to put up with the best he could do?

And he must be supposed to have made it precisely as he wished it to be, not only statically but dynamically--considered, that is, in all its potentialities and in all its developments down to the end. That is to say, he must be supposed to have made it precisely to suit himself, as extended not only in space but in time. If anything occurs in it as projected through time--just as truly as if anything is found it in as extended in space--which is not just as he intended it to be--why, then we must admit that he could not make such a universe as he would like to have, and had to put up with the best he could get. And, then, he is not God. A being who cannot make a universe to his own liking is not God. A being who can agree to make a universe which is not to his liking, most certainly is not God," Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield (P&R 1980), 1:104-05

This is certainly a very bracing and unflinching, not to say, provocative answer to the question in general. And it stands in stark contrast to so much popular preaching we see and hear and read in our own day.

But Murray gave a rather different answer—an answer in relation to the offer of the gospel.

In order to get at the nub of the issue, we need to define our terms. The offer of the gospel is presented with different adjectives, viz., the "free" offer of the gospel, the "universal" offer of the gospel, the "well-meant" offer of the gospel—but these are not necessarily interchangeable.

To say the offer is "universal" can mean different things. It is not universal in actual extent. For everyone doesn't have an opportunity to hear the Gospel.

Rather, it is universal in a conditional sense, i.e., whoever repents of his sins and believes in Christ will be saved.

It is also "universal" or more properly general in the sense of being more extensive than election. Although not everyone hears the offer, more hear it than are numbered among the elect.

For some, though, the universal offer is only a sincere offer if backed up by a "well-meant" offer. Again, this can mean different things. It could mean that, being conditional, it is a bona fide offer if anyone who meets the terms of the offer receives the promised blessing. And as far as I'm considered, that's both a necessary and sufficient definition.

However, others go a step further and insist that it cannot be well-meant unless it is redeemed by a universal desire on God's part for the salvation of the reprobate—a desire which is disappointed, or at least is never consummated (which comes to much the same thing).

This, in turn, implies a couple of things:

i) It implies that there is in God something strongly analogous to human emotion. Here again some distinctions and definitions are in order.

We often use emotive and conative terms interchangeably, viz., want, will, desire, resolve, &c.

This is, in part, because human feelings are mixed up with human decisions, and also because there is a potential and often actual discrepancy between human intent and execution. I may want or will something that, try as I might, I cannot achieve.

But in dealing with God we need to be very careful about our casually mapping this loose usage back on to the divine subject.

In principle, it would be possible to will something without having any feelings about it. Even in human affairs we often make snap decisions without any emotional engagement to speak of.

ii) It implies that there is, in God, a divided will. God has mixed emotions, conflicted feelings. This doesn't render him indecisive, but it does, once again, present a strong analogy with human psychology.

Now the parallel between open theism and the free offer only occurs if you construe the free offer along the lines of the majority report, reproduced in the Collected Writings of John Murray (Banner of Truth 1982), 4:113-132.

Having set the stage and defined the terms, I'll now run through his prooftexts, and evaluate his case accordingly:

1. Mt 5:44-48; Acts 14:17

The weakness with this appeal is that these verses do not address the question of whether God desires the salvation of the reprobate. Rather, they are prooftexts for common grace, not special grace. So it's hard to see their precise bearing on the question as Murray himself has chosen to pose it.

It also leaves out of account the question of the purpose of common grace. Although the reprobate are genuine beneficiaries of common grace, is common grace bestowed on the reprobate for their personal benefit, or for the sake of the elect?

One of the arguments, if not the primary argument, for common grace, is that the elect cannot survive in a world without common grace, for unless the reprobate were restrained from the full progression of sin, they would destroy the elect. That is why God destroyed the antediluvians and the Sodomites and the Canaanites.

On that understanding, common grace doesn't tell us anything about God's attitude towards the reprobate, but rather, his attitude towards the elect. Blessing the reprobate is instrumental in saving the elect.

It is possible that Murray's appeal is directed against those who denied common grace altogether, but he is overextending the principle of common grace beyond its natural boundaries.

2. Deut 5:29; 32:29; Ps 81:13ff.; Isa 48:18

Here Murray does two things: he ascribes emotions to God, and what is more, he ascribes unrequited emotions to God.

In fairness, this attribution lies of the face of the verses cited. They don't demand that we delve below the surface meaning of the words. They say what they say, and that's that.

But Murray leaves out of account the larger issues of hyperbole, literary genre, and idiomatic usage. Let's take a parallel passage. In Isa 54:4-8, the prophet depicts God as jilted lover--jealous, resentful, forlorn, and forgiving. It's a lovely picture, but how literally are we supposed to take the ascription of sexual passion, sexual frustration and the like? Unless we are going to adopt Mormon hermeneutics, we have to treat this as anthropomorphic.

And that's the way an ancient Israelite would have read it. Isaiah is telling us that God's relation to Israel is analogous to the relation of a loving husband to a wayward wife. And to enforce that point, he draws a vivid picture, pressing, without inhibition, all the customary moods that go along with it.

The analogy is genuine, but it only holds at the relevant level of abstraction. The imaginative details are there for window dressing—nothing more. They're there for the sake of reader 's empathy, not of God's.

3. Mt 23:37; Lk 13:34

This appeal suffers from several flaws:

i) Contrary to what Murray says, it is certainly legitimate to make some allowance for the human dimension of our Savior's psychology. There are many things true of God Incarnate that are untrue of God qua God. For example, I hardly think it orthodox to suppose that our Redeemer's divided state of mind in the garden of Gethsemane owes nothing at all to his humanity, albeit sinless and impeccable, and is directly predicable of God qua God without further ado.

ii) Mt 23:37 has reference to the preceptive rather than decretive will of God. It alludes to the irreparable breach of covenant (24:1; cf. Jer 4:23), which is a necessary prelude to the inauguration of the New Covenant in Christ.

iii) Even at a divine level, God wills certain things with a view to the ends that they subserve. He doesn't will the means irrespective of the ends. He doesn't necessarily approve of the means in abstraction from the ends.

So you can find many passages in Scripture which express divine disapproval, and where the disapproval is quite genuine. But this doesn't imply a tension in the divine will, for it should never be taken in isolation to his approval of the ultimate end in view. God can be both approving and disapproving, for these moral attitudes take different objects, and not the same object. This is how we ought to relate his preceptive will to his decretive will--not as antithetical, but as means-to-ends.

To draw a related distinction, the motives of God in relation to the sinner are not at all the same as the sinner's motives in relation to God. God wills whatever the sinner does, and God approves of his own will, but it doesn't follow that God approves of whatever the sinner wills, for the sinner's motives, standards, and aims are quite different from God's. God has plans, and man has plans, but man's plans are not the same as God's plans, and man often fulfills the plan of God unwittingly.

4. Ezk 18:23,32; 33:11

Murray says that these verses do not present the least limitation or qualification. Well, all I can say is that what is obvious to Murray is not obvious to me.

Quite the contrary, his verses present a very evident line of demarcation, for they are addressed to backslidden Israel. Israel does not stand for humanity in general. In fact, what makes Israel apostate is when she merges with her heathen neighbors. She is called to be distinct—a people set apart. To lift these verses out of their covenant context, as though anything said of the covenant community is applicable to those outside the covenant community, is a remarkably careless equation for a Reformed theologian to make.

No, the wording doesn't single out Israel, but we must read the words with the intended audience in view. A love letter to me may not specify me as the recipient in the body of the letter, but it doesn't follow that the sentiments therein expressed are indefinitely extendible to those to whom the letter was not addressed. Others may read it, but it wasn't meant for their eyes.

Insofar as these verses have a broader application, that would be to the Church, as the antitype of Israel, and not to the unbelieving world at large.

5. Isa 45:22

Murray's use of this verse is scarcely self-explanatory. I simply take this to be a prophecy of the New Covenant and expansion of the Gospel by taking the Gentiles within its broad sweep. There is nothing expressive or implicit in this passage of a multiform will of God. God wills the evangelization of the Gentiles, considered as a class or people-group hitherto excluded, for the most part, from his saving revelation. The precise numerical scope of this prophecy will be delimited by God's providence in the course of church history.

6. 2 Pet 3:9

Here I can do no better than to quote from the standard commentary on 2 Peter, whose interpretation is all the more telling as coming from an exegete who is by no means a card-carrying Calvinist:

"God's patience with his own people, delaying the final judgment to give them the opportunity of repentance, provides at least a partial answer to the problem of eschatological delay...The author remains close to his Jewish source, for in Jewish thought it was usually for the sake of the repentance of his own people that God delayed judgment. Here it is for the sake of the repentance of 2 Peter's Christian readers. No doubt repentance from those sins into which some of them had been enticed by the false teachers (2:14,18; 3:17) is especially in mind," R. Bauckham, Word Biblical Commentary, Volume 50, Jude, 2 Peter (Word, 1983), 312-13.

Let us now take a second look at Warfield's statement. For his answer is also subject to a couple of natural objections with reference to the problem of evil and the law of God.

Isn't there some very weighty sense in which God does not like everything that happens in the world? Doesn't he disapprove of sin?

And, on a related point, when God tells people to do things, when he calls on them to do good and refrain from evil, does he or does he not want them to do what he says? And if, as is often the case, they disobey, does that not imply that he harbors unfulfilled desires?

There is a common answer to both objections. As I said before, everything that happens in the past and the present happens exactly as God desires it to happen, and not otherwise; however, many past and present events happen with a view to the future, so that his desire is correspondent with the past and the present, yet not necessarily in isolation to those events as past or present, but as also correspondent with a view to their future contribution.

So there's an ambiguity in asking if God is satisfied with the present state of affairs. Does God desire things to be just the way they are right now? Yes, and no. Yes, in relation to the teleology of the decree, but not necessarily so in abstraction from their part/whole and means/ends relation.

If we wanted to speculate, we might conjecture that, all other things being equal, God likes a sinless world better than a sinful world; yet he decrees a sinful world because a world that is both fallen and redeemed is a greater good than an unfallen world alone. All other things are not equal.

It is not as if God is issuing laws just to see them broken. The law has different aims and objects. For example, Reformed and Lutheran theologians talk about the threefold use of the law: (i) as a rule of life for believers, to promote their sanctification; (ii) as a rule of life for unbelievers, to conserve an element of common decency and common sense; (iii) as a means of awakening in the unconverted a sense of sin, leading them to Christ.

To take a concrete case, in Exod 7:2-3 we see a formal discrepancy between God's preceptive (v2) and decretive (v3) wills. But v2 does not reflect a frustrated desire on God's part. At a functional level, decree and precept are perfectly congruent. The precept is subordinate to the decree because the precept is instrumental to the decretive outcome in v5.

Did Pharaoh sin when he disobeyed God? Yes. Did God ardently desire that Pharaoh obey him? No. God wanted Pharaoh to disobey him as a means to the end in view in v5. By thwarting the word of God, Pharaoh fulfilled the will of God.

This follows on a broader pattern. God issues some injunctions to harden rather than soften the audience (e.g., Isa 6; Ezk 2; Jn 12). And he hardens them for an ulterior purpose, as a means to an end. To take an example of Calvin's, "Moses, when he relates that King Sihon did not give passage to the people because God had hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate, immediately adds the purpose of his plan; that, as he says, 'He might give him into our hands' (Deut 2:30). Therefore, because God willed that Sihon be destroyed, he prepared his ruin through obstinacy of heart," Institutes 2.4.4.

8. One other objection is such a view leaves no room for any sort of transition from the wrath of God to the grace of God in the course of human history. God's love of Jacob and his hatred of Esau are without any variation or shadow of turning.

But something can be true of false at different levels. In Eph 2:3, Paul doesn't say that we were once children of wrath, but are now the objects of grace. Rather, Paul says that we were "by nature" children of wrath. This looks like a shorthand expression for the fact that, in Adam, we were worthy of death and damnation. So this distinction is not temporal, but federal—in Adam or in Christ.

And that is true of the elect no less than the reprobate. God can see things from more than one standpoint. The elect, in Adam, are fitting objects of wrath. But, in Christ, they are accounted righteous.

And there is, indeed, an existential transition when the elect are regenerated and justified by faith. But that does not reflect, much less effect, a shift in the divine disposition. For the eternal decree has equal reference to our standing in Adam and our standing in Christ. The one was not for time, and the other for eternity. The distinction is not between now and then. Both are timelessly true.

Nonetheless, the reprobate are only considered in Adam, as fallen; whereas the elect are considered in Adam and Christ alike—as fallen and redeemed. And this eternal difference is differentiated in history. For their Christian identity will trump their Adamic identity.

This is a somewhat artificial and unnecessary debate to the extent that we already have infallible models of evangelistic preaching in both the Gospels and the Book of Acts. Hence, it is unnecessary to deduce the conditions of the offer from a more abstract and general set of principles. We should never presume to say either more or less than Christ and the Apostles say in their own pattern of preaching. We need not, and ought not, resort to unscriptural conditions and formulas, but content ourselves with the exemplary conditions and inspired formulas revealed in Scripture itself for our fervent and reverent emulation.

It is precisely because the efficacy of the message is beyond the preacher's control that he need not fret over either the intent or the effect. He one and only duty is to preach the whole counsel of God, with whatever passion he can naturally muster, and leave the results in the good hands of a mighty providence.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Steve,

    Wow!, what a blessing to read this article on what God wants.
    It is one of the best reads I have had in a while.

    Being in recent years banging heads with Mr Ponter, Tony Byrne and a couple of others with mud sticking to me, It was such a great encouragement to read this from you.