If God Desires All to Be Saved, Why Aren’t They?
Good Friday, everyone — literally. It’s Good Friday on the calendar, a day set apart for serious joy, set apart for us to dwell on the death of our Savior Jesus Christ. This holiday is no funeral. It’s a celebration. It’s that odd celebration of ours, and “the main song” of eternity, that eternal song about the “unparalleled beauty and worth of the reigning Lamb, Jesus Christ, who was slain” (APJ 1601; Revelation 5:6–14).
Today’s episode is not Good Friday focused, per se. But perhaps we will get into the majesty and mystery of the cross in God’s design. The question I think leads us here. We’ll see. It’s from a listener named Tim. “Pastor John, hello and thank you for this podcast. First Timothy 2:3–4 says God desires all men to be saved. He desires that end. But not all men are saved. Does that mean (1) God will not do what he wants to do? Or (2) God cannot do what he wants to do? It has to be one of these two options, right?”
No, because what the Bible shows over and over again is that there are, in many cases, two wants — W-A-N-T-S — two wills in God, not just one. So it’s not accurate to say that God will not do what he wants to do, since in choosing to do what he does not want to do, he’s doing, in another sense, what he does want to do. It would be superficial to jump to the conclusion that God is schizophrenic or double-minded or perpetually frustrated because, in the infinite complexity of God’s mind and heart, there are ways that he experiences multiple desires — layers of desires or wants or wills — in perfect harmony, each expressing some aspect of his nature in proper unity with other aspects.
God’s Wills in Scripture
Let me illustrate what I mean when I say the Bible repeatedly points to these different levels or ways of wanting or willing in God. For example, now, in 1 Timothy 2:4, the text that Tim is asking about, Paul says, “[God] desires” — that word is thelei in the Greek, which means “wills” or “desires” — “all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” But he does not save all. Now, why not?
Everybody has to face this, not just certain groups. Everyone who believes, as all Christians do, in the wisdom and power and goodness of God would say that the answer is that some other will — or some other desire or commitment of God — takes precedence over the desire for all to be saved. I think everybody would say that.
One group, sometimes called Arminians, says it’s because God is more committed to our free will, our ultimate self-determination, than he is to saving all. The desire to preserve human self-determination takes precedence over the desire for all to be saved. That would be the way an Arminian would describe it. The other group, sometimes called Calvinists, says that God is more committed to glorifying his own free and sovereign grace than he is to saving all.
Now, I think this second answer is right. One of the reasons I do is because of what 2 Timothy 2:25–26 says.
God desires repentance and withholds it.
In 2 Timothy 2:25–26, Paul says that we should exhort sinners with patience and gentleness, and “God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth,” which is a phrase from back in 1 Timothy 2:4. In other words, the reason some people believe and some do not believe is not because they have ultimate self-determination, but because God may or may not grant them to repent and believe. It’s a gift of sovereign grace.
“God wills that all be saved, but in another sense, he does not will that all be saved.”
So God wills that all be saved, but in another sense, he does not will that all be saved. One of these inclinations is a real expression of compassion, and the other is a real expression of sovereign wisdom and the freedom of grace. Now, I’m going to come back to that with an illustration from history that might make it a little more intelligible, but let’s keep giving illustrations of this idea of multiple layers of willing or desiring in God.
God forbids murder and ordains it.
Here’s another example. He commands, “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13). His will is that people not murder. That’s God’s will. But Acts 4:27–28 says that “Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel,” in murdering Jesus — they all teamed up and murdered him — did “whatever [God’s] hand and [God’s] plan had predestined to take place.” God planned the death of his Son at the hands of murderous, wicked men. Our salvation hangs on this reality. This is at the center of the gospel. This issue of God’s sovereignty over sinful men is at the center of the gospel, not some marginal theological dispute. God’s will that his Son be murdered took precedence over his will that people not murder.
Bible students, for centuries, have seen this and have called these two wills by various names, like “will of command” and “will of decree.” Another set of phrases is “moral will” and “sovereign will.”
God forbids false witness and sends it.
Here’s a third example of these two layers or levels or kinds of willing in God. “You shall not bear false witness” (Exodus 20:16). God’s will is that people tell the truth and not be misled, not think false thoughts, and not deceive others. Yet in 2 Thessalonians 2:10–12, it says,
[People] refused to love the truth and so be saved. Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.
They “believe what is false.” They speak what is false. They think what is false. Paul says God sent this delusion as a punishment. God’s will that people believe the truth and speak the truth is subordinated, in their case, to God’s other will, which is manifest in his sending them further into deception.
God cares for the wicked and destroys them.
Here’s another example. In Ezekiel 33:11, God says, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live.” Yet God often in the Bible justly takes the life of the wicked. Isaiah 11:4: “He shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.” He does not have pleasure in the death of the wicked. That is, he does not desire it. Nevertheless, he brings that death about. “I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand” (Deuteronomy 32:39).
God afflicts, but not ‘from the heart.’
Here’s one more example of these two wills in God. This example may take us most explicitly into God’s soul. At least, I have found for myself and for many people that Lamentations 3:32–33 is really illuminating concerning the nature of God and how his willing works. Here’s what it says: “Though he cause grief” — though God caused grief — “he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not afflict from his heart or grieve the children of men.” Now, this is really amazing. God does cause grief. God does afflict the children of men, but then it adds, “not . . . from his heart” (Lamentations 3:33). That’s a very literal and good translation.
“All of the wisdom and all of the moral realities that form God’s choices come from within God himself.”
Now, what are we to make of that? He wills to do it, but he does not will to do it “from his heart.” You can see why I say that the Bible, over and over, points to the mind and heart of God as complex: willing one thing, willing also that this other will not be put into action. And this is not owing — as it would be, say, in our case — to external forces. Nobody’s twisting God’s arm. All of the wisdom and all of the moral realities that form God’s choices come from within God himself.
Here’s an analogy that I said I would give to help perhaps make this a little more intelligible. This comes from The Life of George Washington. Chief Justice John Marshall wrote The Life of George Washington and tells the story that there was a certain Major André who had committed treason and put the new American republic at risk. George Washington signed André’s death warrant. He’s about to be executed. And John Marshall comments in his biography, “Perhaps on no occasion of his life did the commander-in-chief obey with more reluctance the stern mandates of duty and policy.” Two wills were operating in Washington: compassion and justice. One commentator on Washington’s decision said,
Washington’s volition to sign the death-warrant of André did not arise from the fact that his compassion was slight or feigned [unreal], but from the fact that it was rationally counterpoised by a complex of superior judgements . . . of wisdom, duty, patriotism, and moral indignation.
Then he adds, “The pity was real, but was restrained by superior elements of motive.” Washington had official and bodily power to discharge the criminal, but he had no sanctions in his own wisdom and justice to do it.
Similarly, I would say the absence of a volition in God to save does not necessarily imply the absence of compassion. It’s real. That willing in God, that desiring in God, is real. The fact that there are two wills in God points to a profound but complex unity in revealing aspects of God’s nature that are both true and both real. In our own experience, we may feel them as conflicting or as frustrating, but I think it would be rash to say that God experiences his compassion and the justice of his wrath that way. They are harmonious in God. He reveals them both to us so that we can get some true glimpse of what God is really like.