Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Gospel declares God's love

Calvin's doctrine of the love of God expressed in the gospel

The recent questions about hyper-Calvinism and "optative language" have been slightly provoking. So I turn to Calvin.

Calvin always sheds light on these questions, and here is a small beam from the Institutes:

On the other hand, we have good ground for comprehending all the promises in Christ, since the Apostle comprehends the whole Gospel under the knowledge of Christ, and declares that all the promises of God are in him yea, and amen. The reason for this is obvious. Every promise which God makes is evidence of his good will. This is invariably true, and is not inconsistent with the fact, that the large benefits which the divine liberality is constantly bestowing on the wicked are preparing them for heavier judgment. As they neither think that these proceed from the hand of the Lord, nor acknowledge them as his, or if they do so acknowledge them, never regard them as proofs of his favor, they are in no respect more instructed thereby in his mercy than brute beasts, which, according to their condition, enjoy the same liberality, and yet never look beyond it. Still it is true, that by rejecting the promises generally offered to them, they subject themselves to severer punishment. For though it is only when the promises are received in faith that their efficacy is manifested, still their reality and power are never extinguished by our infidelity or ingratitude. Therefore, when the Lord by his promises invites us not only to enjoy the fruits of his kindness, but also to meditate upon them, he at the same time declares his love. Thus we are brought back to our statement, that every promise is a manifestation of the divine favor toward us. Now, without controversy, God loves no man out of Christ. He is the beloved Son, in whom the love of the Father dwells, and from whom it afterwards extends to us. Thus Paul says "In whom he has made us accepted in the Beloved," (Eph. 1:6). It is by his intervention, therefore, that love is diffused so as to reach us. Accordingly, in another passage, the Apostle calls Christ "our peace," (Eph. 2:14), and also represents him as the bond by which the Father is united to us in paternal affection (Rom. 8:3). It follows, that whenever any promise is made to us, we must turn our eyes toward Christ.

~Institutes 3.2.32, emphasis added.

But "God loves no man out of Christ"

But what about Calvin's statement that "God loves no man out of Christ?" (Which I "conveniently" left unbolded in the quote above.) I knew you would ask.

First we should note that Calvin has not "carefully qualified" his expressions of divine favor. He just proclaims -- rather flatly -- that the promises of the gospel are invariably an expression of his good will, favor, or love. (Ask a high Calvinist if he is willing to say that and you may have a clue whether you're dealing with a "high" or a "hyper.")

Second, Calvin does not believe that the expression of God's love is a denial of the fact that the proclamation of the gospel is the occasion of greater condemnation for some. Nor does he believe that the ultimate condemnation of some mitigates the expression of God's love for those sinners.

Third, Calvin's statement that God loves no man out of Christ is intended for us not to mistake God's overtures. He loves us, yes; but only in Christ. Would we have God's love and not have Christ? It cannot be so. The offer of Christ is an expression of God's love; but the refusal to embrace the gospel of Christ leaves us without any hope of God's love.

And if the gospel is to be preached to all...?

I end with this: if the gospel is to be preached to all, and if the gospel is invariably an expression of God's love, then is it not true that the preaching of the gospel is an expression of God's love to all? For Calvin, this is true, whatever the problems may be with "optative language" and "careful qualifications" thereof.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Is James White a Hyper-Calvinist? - Part 2

In my first article in this series, entitled "Is James White a Hyper-Calvinist?" I gave an overview of White's problem and the Biblical reason for entering into the difficulties James White alleges. Those problems are (probably among others he would name if pressed)

  • The Two-Wills "conundrum"
  • The "partial desire" and sovereignty problem
  • "God wills the salvation of all men" is a meaningless statement.

I propose to answer these problems, insofar as I have been able to find an answer in the reformed literature. Admittedly, my answers will not be satisfactory to many, but I hope they may help some whose minds are not biased one way or the other and provide encouragement to those who are inclined to reject hyper-Calvinism.

I'm going to tackle these problems one at a time. This post will deal with the "two-wills conundrum," and the rest will have to wait for another day -- hopefully in the not-too-distant future.

Why enter into this question?

As I said in my previous blog post, I am not so concerned with whether White is or is not a hyper-Calvinist (though I think this is a legitimate concern), but whether good Bible interpretation is being upheld and the doctrines of the Christian faith adhered to.

The reason for entering into this debate is that White has denied, and leads others to deny, that God has any meaningful will for the salvation of the reprobate. The scripture plainly teaches the opposite of what White has claimed, and that is the bottom line for entering into the discussion. It is also the bottom line for tackling the admittedly difficult problems that accompany the Biblical concepts.

The "two-wills conundrum"

White has alleged that viewing certain passages of the Bible as teaching that God wills the salvation of those who are destined never to believe, forces us into an awkward position. Here's White again:

Yeah, and that's one of the problems I have with Ezekiel 18 or 33 being read into this particular issue, because I feel like we're being forced to somehow attribute to God some kind (for some reason)...some kind of an attitude or desire that I just never see, not only do I never see expressed, but it would likewise force us to say that God has an unfulfilled desire, but it's not really the same desire as he chooses to fulfill with other people. And we're left not only--you're not only left with the two-wills conundrum, now you've got multiple desires conundrums, which I don't, I just don't see a reason for it.

~James White, from transcript of Dividing Line radio program at Theological Meditations.

According to White, attributing beneficent motives and desires to God in respect of the offer of salvation to the non-elect involves us in conundrums. God would have to have two wills: a will that decrees the damnation of some men, and a desire that those very men not be damned.

First, I would note that this is the very objection that most Arminians would raise against Calvinism! Election cannot be true, they would say, because it would involve God in willing the damnation of some men whom he has expressly said he loves. The Arminian objection and White's objection are one, the respective parties simply solve the problem in a different way. Both sides agree that the doctrines of election and universal love cannot both be true. One side rejects God's love for all men and the other side rejects the sovereign purpose of God in election.

Both are equally unbiblical, and both rest on the same philosophical objection.

Calvin's answer

Calvin, in answering an imagined objection against the doctrine of election based on Matthew 23:37 ("O Jerusalem, Jerusalem..."), answers by maintaining both God's love for all men and the sovereign election of God, while flatly denying that God has two wills in the matter.

But this will of God, of which we speak, must be defined. For it is well known what exertions the Lord made to retain that people, and how perversely from the highest to the lowest they followed their own wayward desires, and refused to be gathered together. But it does not follow that by the wickedness of men the counsel of God was frustrated. They object that nothing is less accordant with the nature of God than that he should have a double will. This I concede, provided they are sound interpreters. But why do they not attend to the many passages in which God clothes himself with human affections, and descends beneath his proper majesty? He says, "I have spread out my hands all the day unto a rebellious people," (Isa. 65:1), exerting himself early and late to bring them back. Were they to apply these qualities without regarding the figure, many unnecessary disputes would arise which are quashed by the simple solution, that what is human is here transferred to God. Indeed, the solution which we have given elsewhere (see Book 1, c. 18, sec. 3; and Book 3, c. 20, sec. 43) is amply sufficient: viz. that though to our apprehension the will of God is manifold, yet he does not in himself will opposites, but, according to his manifold wisdom (so Paul styles it, Eph. 3:10), transcends our senses, until such time as it shall be given us to know how he mysteriously wills what now seems to be adverse to his will.

~Calvin, Institutes 3.24.17, emphasis added.

Calvin calls us back from idle speculation and would have us simply accept the truths plainly taught in the scripture, holding our philosophical objections in abeyance until we are given to know more fully the mysteries of God's will.

The answer of R.L. Dabney

Dabney goes slightly further than Calvin. He attempts to explain the complexity of the Divine psychology in this matter, and raises and answers a possible objection of an opponent. The objection is this: if God is all-powerful, then he must be capable of fulfilling his wishes, and no propension would go unfulfilled. Since God is all-powerful, if he really has decreed whatsoever comes to pass, he could have no inclination to be merciful to sinners who ultimately receive no mercy. Here are Dabney's words in answer:

Now, it is obvious that this reply proceeds on the following assumption: that if the obstacle of physical inability be removed in God, by his consciousness of omnipotence, there cannot be any other rational ground, in the view of God's omniscience, that may properly counterpoise or hold back the propension of mercy. But the statement of this is its sufficient exposure. It must always be exceedingly probable that an all-wise mind may see, among the multifarious concerns of his vast kingdom, good reasons for his action, of which we cannot have the least conception.

* * *

When we have admitted this, we have virtually admitted that God may see, in his own omniscience, a rational ground other than inability for restraining his actual propension of pity towards a given sinner. The first objection, then, however plausible in appearance, is found to be empty. And it is especially to be noted, that while it professes a zeal for God's infinitude, it really disparages it. Our position is, after all, the modest and reverential one.

~R. L. Dabney, God's Indiscriminate Proposals of Mercy, As Related to His Power, Wisdom, and Sincerity, quoted at

Thus Dabney, too, would call us from idle speculation and call us immodest for raising the objection.

The attempt to reconcile God's sovereignty with universal love is, indeed, a difficult one. But we should not allow the difficulty to push us into unbelief. It is my contention that the Arminians and the hyper-Calvinists both (and White ... whether he be classified as a hyper-Calvinist or no) have allowed the difficulty to push them into doubting the plain witness of the Bible.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Is James White a Hyper-Calvinist?

The Genesis of the dispute

James White was recently accused of being a hyper-Calvinist at the John 3:16 conference. White reacted with a strongly worded denial. But the question persists for some folks -- myself included.

The question of characterization as "hyper-Calvinist" is certainly an interesting one, but is ultimately a question of semantics. Neither White nor his friends will accept the label, and perhaps it doesn't matter so much, unless one cares for history and the meaning of words.

The important question is what White thinks about God's love for men and the motive for the proclamation of the gospel. When the gospel is presented to men, does God intend to present Himself as loving, gracious, and ready to forgive? And if so, does that accurately reflect God's disposition toward men? Does God really intend and desire that all men be saved?

White's problem

White believes that if we attribute to God a desire to save the reprobate, then we have introduced a "conundrum," resulting in God having unfulfilled desires:

Yeah, and that's one of the problems I have with Ezekiel 18 or 33 being read into this particular issue, because I feel like we're being forced to somehow attribute to God some kind (for some reason)...some kind of an attitude or desire that I just never see, not only do I never see expressed, but it would likewise force us to say that God has an unfulfilled desire, but it's not really the same desire as he chooses to fulfill with other people. And we're left not only--you're not only left with the two-wills conundrum, now you've got multiple desires conundrums, which I don't, I just don't see a reason for it.

~From a transcript from Contend Earnestly, a more complete version of which can be found at Theological Meditations. At this second link, you can listen to the original audio from which the transcript was made.

Is there a reason for attributing beneficent motives to God in the proclamation of the gospel to those who will never believe? And furthermore, what does it mean that God desires the salvation of the reprobate, if such were the case? Here's White again:

But, I have a problem then saying in my proclamation of the gospel to others means that I then have to affirm some kind of a partially salvific desire...cause it can only be partially salvific. If it's truly a salvific desire, and it's truly a desire of God, does he not do whatever he pleases in the heavens and the earth?"

* * *

If you could tell me what it means, you that common grace? Does that mean that God is kind to the non-elect? Ok. I've said that a million times. But that's not what I'm hearing. You know. And I just go, what does it mean to say that God desires to do something he then does not provide the means to do?

~From the transcript at Theological Meditations.

In sum, White can't affirm that God desires the salvation of all men, sees no reason to do so, and wouldn't know what it meant if one affirmed it.

I propose to tackle the question regarding the reason for attributing beneficent motives to God in this post, and the question about what "beneficent motives" means in a second post, to follow shortly.

What About the Bible?

Is there a reason to hold that God desires the salvation of all men? Well, the obvious reason is the scripture presents God in just such a way. I presume my readers know the obvious passages. But, just to be safe, here are a few of the Biblical reasons for believing that God desires the salvation of all men.

God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked

The obvious passages here are Ezekiel 18:23-32 and 33:11, and 2 Peter 3:9. There are some others, not so obvious: Ezekiel 3:18 (where God condemns the failure to warn the wicked man: "his blood will I require at thine hand"); Luke 19:41-44 (where Christ weeps over Jerusalem); Romans 9:1-4 (Paul - presumably reflecting God's heart - mourns over the unbelief of his "kinsmen according to the flesh").

God loves all men

The obvious passages here are John 3:16, Matthew 5:44-48. But again, this principle can be found in other passages throughout the scripture. For example, Acts 3:26 ("Unto you first God, having raised up his Son Jesus, sent him to bless you, in turning away every one of you from his iniquities"); Acts 14:16-17 (Who in times past suffered all nations to walk in their own ways.  Nevertheless he left not himself without witness, in that he did good, and gave us rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness.)

God intends for all men to repent and believe the gospel

We could put John 3:16 in this category, but there are lots of other verses for this. John 1:7 ("that all men through him might believe"); John 5:34 (see Waldron below); John 6:32-33 (there, Jesus speaks to some who would not believe [vs. 66] and says, "my Father giveth you the true bread from heaven"); John 17:21 ("that the world may believe that thou hast sent me"), Acts 17:30 ("commandeth all men every where to repent"); Romans 2:4 (the goodness of God "leadeth thee to repentance"); 2 Corinthians 5:20 ("be ye reconciled to God"); 2 Peter 3:9; Revelation 22:17 ("the Spirit and the bride say, Come"); and I could probably multiply this list.

God expresses intense emotion

In the Ezekiel passages, for example, God shows himself as distressed over the death of the wicked and pleads with Israel ("turn ye, turn ye, for why would ye die?"). In Romans 9, Paul says that he could wish himself accursed from Christ that Israel might be saved. In 2 Corinthians 5:20, Paul expressly says that God beseeches or pleads through the gospel, "be ye reconciled to God." Most Christians see (some Calvinists to the contrary notwithstanding) this strong emotion expressed in John 3:16. John Calvin, for example:

The word only-begotten is emphatic, (ἐμφατικὸν) to magnify the fervor of the love of God towards us. For as men are not easily convinced that God loves them, in order to remove all doubt, he has expressly stated that we are so very dear to God that, on our account, he did not even spare his only-begotten Son. Since, therefore, God has most abundantly testified his love towards us, whoever is not satisfied with this testimony, and still remains in doubt, offers a high insult to Christ, as if he had been an ordinary man given up at random to death. But we ought rather to consider that, in proportion to the estimation in which God holds his only-begotten Son, so much the more precious did our salvation appear to him, for the ransom of which he chose that his only-begotten Son should die.


~Calvin, Comm. John 3:16

If I can sum up this argument, the reasons for believing that God truly desires the salvation of even the reprobate is this: God loves all men, he deplores the death of the wicked, he would have all men to believe the truth and be saved, and he expresses that intention in the strongest possible language. This is so clearly the teaching of the Bible on the love of God, that to deny it, or to doubt it, is an appalling error. Whether it be hyper-Calvinism or no, it is an error worthy of the most opprobrious label; for it strikes at the heart of God and his revelation of himself to sinful men.

Historical reasons

I'll give two examples: Calvin and a modern Baptist writer. Calvin, of course, believed that God was favorably disposed toward all men and would have them to be saved:

faith in Christ brings life to all, and that Christ brought life, because the Heavenly Father loves the human race, and wishes that they should not perish.

* * *

And he has employed the universal term whosoever, both to invite all indiscriminately to partake of life, and to cut off every excuse from unbelievers. Such is also the import of the term World, which he formerly used; for though nothing will be found in the world that is worthy of the favor of God, yet he shows himself to be reconciled to the whole world, when he invites all men without exception to the faith of Christ, which is nothing else than an entrance into life.

~Calvin, Comm. John 3:16

Some people will accuse me of "taking the quote out of context" by omitting the predestinarian statements that Calvin makes in the John 3:16 commentary. But we all know -- you and I, dear reader -- that Calvin strongly held to election and predestination. On the other hand, he did not allow his strong belief in God's sovereign decree to blind him to the truth of the scripture. Thus, though he taught that God loved the world and invites all men without exception to faith, he also included the awareness that "the elect alone are they whose eyes God opens, that they may seek him by faith." idem. Calvin did not seek to reconcile these truths, but simply believed them as they are taught in the scriptures. The problem comes when we seek to deny one truth for the sake of the other. Both Arminians and hyper-Calvinists make the same error, on the opposite side of the issue.

Reformed theologians throughout the intervening centuries have held both to the sovereignty of God in election and to the love of God for all men expressed in the preaching of the gospel. Some of my friends have made reference to Sam Waldron's commentary on the London Baptist Confession as an example of this. Writing of John 5:34 Here's a relevant paragraph:

"The doctrine of this text that God earnestly desires the salvation of every man who hears the gospel and thus freely offers Christ to them is confirmed throughout the rest of Scripture. The Bible teaches that the good gifts which God bestows upon men in general, including the non-elect, are manifestations of God's general love and common grace towards them (Matt. 5:43-48; Luke 6:35; Acts 14:17). While they do serve to increase the guilt of those who misuse them, this is not the sole intention of God towards the non-elect in giving them. The Scriptures teach that God desires the good even of those who never come to experience the good wished for them by God (Deut. 5:29; 32:29; Ps. 81:13-16; Isa. 48:18). The Scriptures also teach that God so loved sinners that in the person of his Son he weeps because of the destruction they bring upon themselves (Matt. 23:37; Luke 13:34; 19:41-44). God emphatically expressses his desire that some should repent who do not repent (Ezek. 18:23, 32; 33:11; Rom. 10:11). The Scriptures teach a general gospel call which comes to the hearers of the gospel indiscriminately and which may be, and often is resisted (Prov. 1:24; 8:4; Isa. 50:2; 65:12; 66:4; Jer. 7:13-14; 35:17; Matt. 22:14).

This biblical witness does not overthrow the scriptural teaching of an unconditional election and an irresistable grace.

~Waldron, Exposition of the 1689 Confession, p. 122. Quoted at Theological Meditations. (Thanks to Flynn for finding this passage in Waldron.)

There are many more Biblical passages and a host of Calvinistic theologians on this question ... all of the tenor given above. In fact, Dr. White's "conundrum" is entirely uncontroversial in Calvinistic circles. This has been explained time and time again throughout the history of reformed theology. That Dr. White has a problem with it ought to reflect a certain deviation on his part from standard Calvinistic doctrine as well as from the plain teaching of the Bible.

More next time on this in Is James White a Hyper-Calvinist? Part 2.

Monday, November 10, 2008

J. C. Ryle - "Christ Died in Vain"

I recently received one of those Sunday School papers that get passed around in most evangelical churches. I happened on one that contained a quotation from J. C. Ryle. Here is the part that interested me:

There are many who hear of Christ with the ear, and believe all they are told about Him. They understand that there is no salvation apart from Christ. They acknowledge that Jesus alone can deliver them from hell, and present them faultless before God. But they seem never to get beyond this general acknowledgement. They never grasp Christ for their own souls. They stick fast in a state of wishing, and wanting, and feeling, and intending, and never get any further. They see what we mean: they know it is all true. They hope one day to get the full benefit of it, but at present they get no benefit whatever. The world is their all. Politics is their all. Business is their all. But Christ is not their all.

I warn you plainly that such a person is in a bad state of soul. Such was the faith of Judas Iscariot, or Ahab, or Cain. Believe me, there must be actual faith in Christ, or else Christ died in vain so far as you are concerned.

Three Chists: Which one do you follow?, by J. C. Ryle, Power for Living, September 21, 2008.

I'm not trying to be sensational here. But there are two things about the "Christ died in vain" language. First, it argues for an understanding of Ryle's Calvinism that can include Christ dying for some who never receive any benefit from his death. Second, the language itself reminds me of Calvin's "wasted blood" language. (If you go to that link, look for Calvin's comment on Romans 14:15 and others that contain "wasted blood" or equivalent language.) Ryle's language has a good Calvinistic pedigree.

If you want to help the readers of this blog, I would appreciate getting a good source for the Ryle quote. I've searched Tony's J. C. Ryle section at, but I don't see this quote there. Anyone with the Ryle material who can find the source for the quote gets kudos from me. :-)