"Not Willing That Any Should Perish"
A critical examination of the doctrine of Determinism as taught by Augustine, Calvin, Luther et al., but particularly as set forth by Calvinism's Five Points: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and the Perseverance of the Saints.
Man's Free Will
The Foreknowledge Of God
The Five Points Of Calvinism Examined
by: Allan Turner
In an over-reaction to Calvinist extremes, many Christians have shied away from a study of God's sovereignty. This is a serious mistake. The sovereignty of God is a thoroughly biblical subject. Although the words "sovereign" or "sovereignty" are not found in the KJV, one or both of these words appear in the NKJV, ASV, NIV, and NRSV. Nevertheless, the idea of God's sovereignty is clearly taught in both the Old and New Testament. "Sovereignty," according to the American Heritage Dictionary, means, "Supremacy of authority or rule as exercised by a sovereign." This idea is applied to God by such words as "dominion," "rule," "ruler," "Lord," "King," and "Potentate." As Jack Cottrell points out in his outstanding book What The Bible Says About God The Ruler, "The sovereignty of God may be concisely summed up as absolute Lordship." Sovereignty, then, is equal to lordship, lordship is equal to ownership, and ownership is equal to control. It is precisely at this point that Calvinism strays. We will have more to say about this farther along; but before proceeding on, let us make sure we understand the ramifications of Sovereignty.
The Ramifications Of Sovereignty
Repelled by the thought of a loving God being responsible for the death of the innocent and those we love, many Christians have concluded that God is not yet Sovereign Ruler of the universe. Unlike now, one day, they say, God's will is to be done in all things. As sympathetic as we are to their reasons for coming to this conclusion, we are nevertheless convinced that those who hold such a position are terribly wrong. From a biblical standpoint, the sovereignty of God is simply not open for debate. If God is not sovereign, He is clearly not God! Therefore, when I answer "yes" to the question, "Is it true that whatever happens is the will of God?," I must make sure that those who hear me understand that my answer is not an unqualified "yes." Failing to do so would be theologically misleading and personally devastating.
My "yes" is qualified by the fact that there are at least three different senses in which the "will of God" is used in the Bible. When we understand the different ways in which this phrase is used, then we can understand that God is not personally nor directly responsible for the many things people want to either credit or discredit Him with, even though it remains true that everything that happens ultimately falls within His sovereignty.
God's Decretive Will
It was God's decretive will that was at work in His scheme to redeem mankind through His Son Jesus Christ.1 For the Bible believer, it is a given that whatever God purposes cannot be thwarted. For example, in Romans 8:28-30, we learn that God has decreed that He will justify, and one day glorify, certain foreknown individuals (viz., "whosoever will") on the basis of a foreordained Christ,2 a foreordained gospel plan,3 and a foreordained life.4 With this fact firmly established, the apostle Paul joyously affirms, "If God is for us, who can be against us?"5
In like manner, the doctrine of the resurrection rests firmly on God's decretive will. In John 6:40, Jesus said, "And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day." Again, "If God is for us, who can be against us?" Whatever God proposes, and Himself carries out, will, in fact, happen. This is the reason why God can assert that He declares "the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things that are not yet done, saying, 'My counsel shall stand, and I will do all My pleasure.'"6 This is God's decretive will.
God's Preceptive Will
Furthermore, it is in connection with God's preceptive will that we understand that the Lord is "longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance."9 Actually, God's desire (i.e., His will) for the salvation of all men is reflected many places in His word,10 but such must be kept distinct from His decretive will. A failure to make such a distinction will cause one to land squarely within the Calvinist camp.
God's Permissive Will
God's permissive will allows both bad and good things to occur. It is used by Paul in this latter sense in 1 Corinthians 16:7, when he writes: "For I do not wish to see you now on the way; but I hope to stay a while with you, if the Lord permits." Again, he uses it this way when, in Acts 18:21, he writes: "I must by all means keep this coming feast in Jerusalem; but I will return again to you, God willing." The writer of Hebrews put it this way: "And this we will do if God permits."13
Of course, sometimes the Lord does not will (permit) something to happen that His creatures desire to happen. As Sovereign, He has the perfect right to do so. For example, in Acts 16:7, Luke writes: "After they had come to Mysia they tried to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit did not permit them." And, according to James, the height of man's prideful arrogance is manifested by the one who does not take into consideration the fact that his desires may be, and sometimes are, superseded by the Sovereign Ruler of the universe.14
Control Not Causation
It is true, then, that whatever happens is God's will. Everything that transpires falls within the sovereign will of God in one sense or another. However, it is absolutely crucial to understand that there are three different senses in which this may be true: (1) Sometimes a thing occurs because God decides it will happen, and then He makes it happen. This we have called God's decretive will and it seems to be limited mostly to His working out the "scheme of redemption." (2) Sometimes a thing occurs because God desires it and man decides, of his own free will, to do what God desires. This we have identified as God's preceptive will and has to do with God's commandments or precepts. (3) Sometimes a thing occurs because of the agency of an individual or group of individuals, and God permits it to happen. We have called this God's permissive will. Included in this category are sinful or careless acts like murder, or the death of one caused by the actions of a drunken driver. Even tragedies that occur through the natural processes would fit in this category. All three of these categories can be classified as "God's will," but only the first category is God's will in any causative sense. And even though God is Sovereign Ruler of the universe, categories two and three remind us that we must allow the Sovereign Ruler to respect the integrity of the freedom He has so graciously accorded His creation. As His creatures, we must learn to trust God's wisdom in knowing what good can be drawn from the tragic episodes He permits to take place in category three.
Does God Have An Individual Will For Each Person's Life?
Although this view is very popular, we are convinced that the idea of an individual, specific will of God for every detail of a person's life is not taught in God's word. Calvinists and other determinists argue that the Bible is filled with examples of individuals for whom God had a specific plan, such as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, John the Baptist, Paul et al. But each of these examples was highly unusual and was related to God's working out of His plan of salvation for fallen mankind, that is, the Scheme of Redemption. Furthermore, the specific plan that God had for each of these individuals was revealed to them by special revelation and, therefore, cannot be seen as normative for ordinary believers today.
Those who affirm God's individual will for each person usually cite passages like Psalm 32:8; Proverbs 3:5,6; Isaiah 30:20,21; Colossians 1:9 and 4:12; Romans 12:1,2; Ephesians 2:10 and 5:15-17. But when these passages are considered in their context, a much stronger case can be made for these passages in terms of God's preceptive or moral will (which we have already discussed at some length) and not His decretive will.
Being Led By The Spirit
We find it ironic that those who are waiting to know God's will for themselves through some inner guidance or miracle apart from the Word are the very ones who miss God's will for their lives by not obeying His preceptive or moral will. I have personally taught the gospel to those caught up in this deceptive doctrine and have had them tell me that if God wanted them to be baptized for the remission of sins, He would have told them directly through a direct operation of the Holy Spirit. As they erroneously wait for a direct revelation of God's decretive will, they fail to obey His preceptive will. As one can see, this is a most damnable doctrine!
But, in rejecting such a doctrine, one must not jump to another equally extreme position which says that knowing the will of God is irrelevant to daily decision making. The will of God (particularly His preceptive will as revealed in the Scriptures) is always applicable to our daily lives. God's Word is to be the reference point for our decision making. This means that the most sophisticated technique for knowing the will of God in our lives is: "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God might be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work."19 This means that whatever God instructs us to do in His Word, either through commands or general principles, is His will for our lives. In other words, if God wants us to do it, then it is in the book! Thus, when the question is asked, "How can I know God's will for my life?," we answer, "Read the Bible."
Not As Many "Thou Shalts" And "Thou Shalt Nots" As You Might Think
But, and this is very important, many of the decisions we face every day are neither required nor forbidden. The key to understanding this point is to be found in the idea that it is not our task to know if a particular decision is God's will, but rather if it is within God's will. For example, the inspired apostle wrote, "But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever."21 This is God's preceptive will and it requires, among other things, that a parent provide nourishing food for his children. As long as this general principle is met, the specific decision of whether to have liver and onions or steak and green beans for dinner does not really matter. Whether one eats in the kitchen or the dining room, or whether the beans are fresh or frozen, or whether one has a hamburger for breakfast, lunch or dinner, does not matter to God. Once again, as long as the general requirements of this passage are being met, God is not really concerned about the specific choices that are made. Understanding this point can be liberating for those who have thought God wanted them to make a specific choice in every decision.
To be pleasing to God, everything we do must fall within His preceptive will,22 even those things that are not specifically required by it, such as matters of opinion and indifference. For instance, we have the right (i.e., it falls within God's will) either to eat or not eat meat; but, and this is terribly important, we have no right to bind either of these on anyone else.23 Likewise, we have the right (i.e., it falls within the umbrella of God's preceptive will) to send our children to either a public or private school; but we have no right to bind either of these on someone else. Furthermore, we have the right (i.e., God grants permission) to marry within or outside our own race; but we have no right to bind our personal convictions on another person. There are, of course, many other things that could be listed here, but you see the point, do you not?
God is not nearly as judgmental as some people think. When someone insists on making his personal convictions the judge and jury of other men's consciences, he becomes much more judgmental than God Himself. The Bible teaches it is just as wrong to bind where God has not bound as it is to loose where He has not loosed. The apostle Paul warned against the former when he said, "Who are you to judge another man's servant?"24
Making Right Choices
The Bible says, "If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him."25 If the lack of wisdom is what keeps us from making the best choices, and it is, all we need to do is ask the Lord for wisdom, He'll give it to us, and then we will always make the best choices in life, it's as simple as this! Or is it? Although this wisdom comes from God as a direct response to our prayer, and is, therefore, something other than just a knowledge of God's preceptive will, it must not be thought of as either a magic formula or instant omniscience. Neither should we think of it as something totally divorced from one's knowledge of the Scriptures. Yes, we are assured that if we ask the Lord for wisdom, He will give it to us, but Proverbs 4:5 commands us to "Get wisdom, get understanding," implying that wisdom and understanding must be acquired, and, consequently, not something to be received passively. Proverbs 4:5 qualifies James 1:5, that is, it tells us that wisdom is not going to be given without some effort on our part. Furthermore, wisdom has to do with how we use the knowledge we already have. Within the context of Proverbs 4, wisdom, which is identified as the "principle thing,"26 is connected to "instruction," "doctrine," "commandments," and being "taught," and by application to the subject at hand, a knowledge of God's word. In fact, even a casual reading of the "Wisdom Literature" will demonstrate the connection between instruction and wisdom. In addition, Moses, at the beginning of the Law, said: "Surely I have taught you statutes and judgments, just as the Lord my God commanded me, that you should act according to them in the land which you go to possess. Therefore be careful to observe them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statutes, and say, 'Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.'"27 Again, wisdom and understanding are associated with God's instructions and commandments. In 2 Timothy 3:15, being "wise unto salvation" is connected with "the holy scriptures." Therefore, a man who is not studying to show himself approved,28 cannot be asking for wisdom "in faith, nothing wavering," as James 1:6 requires, and will not, therefore, be receiving anything from the Lord! Nevertheless, for those who desire and pray for wisdom, willingly cultivating it with God's help, I have no doubt they will receive it.
In seeking wisdom, the following suggestions are offered:
Know as much about God's word as possible. Because knowledge is a requirement for wisdom, we should pray for wisdom while learning as much about God's word as possible. In other words, praying for wisdom is not a substitute for Bible study!
Know as much about life as possible. This is a mighty big job, and one that, more often than not, comes with experience. The Hebrew writer makes this point when he says, "But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil."36 For example, if one did not know that most "birth control pills" actually prevent a fertilized egg from implanting on the wall of the mother's uterus, thereby receiving nourishment, it would be difficult to make a biblically informed proper decision about what method of birth control one might wish to use. Furthermore, unless one knew that in vitro fertilization routinely involved the destruction of fertilized ova, it would be almost impossible to make the right decision about this procedure. But, knowing about life is more than the accumulation of facts, it is also the cultivation of the knowledge of how these facts affect life. This is why respect for and consultation with our elders is so important for one seeking wisdom.37 Quite simply, they have seen more of life than we have and, therefore, should be wiser than we are.
Finally, know as much about wisdom as possible. As we said previously, praying for wisdom does not result in instant omniscience. It is unfortunate that when many are faced with a decision, they say a prayer for wisdom; then, no matter what they decide, they assume that this particular decision was supplied by God. But, as we have indicated already, wisdom does not work this way. Wisdom is not specific answers to specific problems. Rather, wisdom is the ability to discern the best decision from those that are only better. We recognize that wisdom applies general knowledge and understanding to specific situations with excellent results. This means it is a skill! Consequently, as we pray for it, we realize it grows and increases with not just study, but the exercise of what we have studied and learned. Unfortunately, even a wise person sometimes makes a poor or even a bad decision. Nevertheless, trusting the Lord to give us wisdom, we continue to learn as much about God, His word, life in general, and wisdom as we can. Only in this manner will we become acquainted with and enlightened by true, worthwhile wisdom.
The Mistake Of Trying To Interpret Providence
As has already been noted, Calvinists erroneously believe that everything that happens is God's decretive or purposive will. Others, some of whom are Christians, believe they can actually interpret God's will (or providence) by events that take place in their lives, or the lives of others. For instance, a good man prospers and a bad man suffers hardship. Some are convinced that God is blessing the good man and punishing the bad man. But is this really the case? What happens when a good man suffers and a bad man prospers?
The Gamaliel Fallacy
Is Private Speculation Necessarily Wrong?
Undoubtedly, we can all recount the marvelous things that have happened to us in our lifetimes which we believe were providential. However, we should be careful not to cite these things as proof of God's special providence. Our proof is found in the promises contained in God's word. In the case of special providence, the apostle Paul declared by inspiration, "We know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them that are called according to His purpose."43 In other words, because of God's special providential care for us, every circumstance or event that happens to us will have either a good purpose or a good result, so long as we continue to love and obey Him. How do we know this? The Bible, God's preceptive will, tells us so! Consequently, our faith in God, the Sovereign Ruler of all creation, and His solemn promise that "all things work together for good to them that love God," relieve us of the burden of trying to figure out whether a particular event happened because of God's decretive or permissive will, and directs us to a thorough study of His preceptive will, which has been revealed to us in the Bible.
As we conclude this section on the sovereignty of God, let us think of Him as "the Lord, God Most High, the Possessor of heaven and earth."44 Let us acknowledge that He "has established His throne in heaven, and His kingdom rules over all."45 With the psalmist, let us say: "Bless the Lord, you His angels, who excel in strength, who do His word, heeding the voice of His word. Bless the Lord, all you His hosts, you ministers of His, who do His pleasure. Bless the Lord, all His works, in all places of His dominion. Bless the Lord, O my soul!"46