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 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?"
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If you could tell me what it means, you know...is 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.
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.
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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.