Does God Want All to Be Saved? A Response to Dr. Kruger

, posted by g1antfan

Dr. Kruger is the President and Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS). His interests in the formation of the NT canon and the early history of the church align with my interests in these areas. In a recent post on his blog (Canon Fodder), he writes about the question: does God really want all to be saved (link). It is a very short treatment, answering the question from a Reformed perspective.

By way of background, it is clear in Scripture that God’s desire is for all to be saved and none to perish (1 Tim 2:3-4; 2 Peter 3:9; Deut 30:19; Ezek 18:23,32; 33:11).

In the Reformed view, those who will be saved and those who will perish are rooted in the unchangeable and unconditional decree (or choice) of God. It is by God’s design that some (known as the elect) are granted mercy and an efficacious, irresistible grace so that they are saved. And it is by design that others (known as the reprobate) do not receive this same mercy and grace insuring that they perish.

These ideas are captured in the Westminster Confession of Faith, which is the defining document for what is taught at RTS (link).

Reformed theology as set forth in the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms as accepted by the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America as its standard of doctrine at its first General Assembly in 1789 is the system of doctrine taught in Scripture; and, therefore, it is to be learned, taught and proclaimed for the edification and government of Christian people, for the propagation of the faith and for the evangelization of the world by the power of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.

In chapter 3 of the WCF we learn that:

  • “By the decree of God, for the manifestation of his glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life, and others foreordained to everlasting death.” (WCF III.3)
  • predestination unto everlasting life is “unchangeably designed; and their number is so certain and definite that it can not be either increased or diminished.” (III.4)
  • This unchangeable decree was issued “before the foundation of the world was laid” and was unconditionally made “without any foresight of faith or good works, or perseverance” (III.5)
  • Only the elect are “effectually called unto faith in Christ” (III.6)
  • “The rest of mankind” were passed by “for the glory of his sovereign power over his creatures” (III.7)

The challenge for the Reformed theologian is explaining how God could want all to be saved, a sentiment explicitly declared in Scripture, when He in actuality chose to save only some. Particularly difficult is that every individual’s eternal fate is part of God’s unchangeable design and was set before creation. God purposely “withholds mercy” so that the reprobate will perish. This act, according to the WCF III.7, is done because it pleases Him. Yet this seems to be the opposite of God’s expressed desire that it would please Him if none perished.

The solution, we are told by Dr. Kruger, is found in the multiple wills of God.

what [do] we mean when we say that God “wants” something.  And when we talk about what God wants we inevitably must talk about the “will” of God. And this is a subject that requires some careful nuance.

Of the three wills of God presented, the two that are most pertinent to this topic are the 1) decretive will covering everything that God decrees will actually happen; and 2) the dispositional will encompassing all that God delights in. From these Dr. Kruger concludes:

we can see that God, from one perspective, does not “want” (dispositional will) the wicked to perish.  But, from another perspective, God has decreed that some will be saved and some will not (decretive will).

The article concludes with the illustration of a judge who must decide the fate of an accused and guilty person standing before them. The judge may not “want” to sentence the person to be punished and at the same time “want” to because he must carry out his duties as a just judge. In this way, Kruger assumes that he has defended these two premises as understood in the Reformed view:

  • God wants all to be saved & none to perish
  • God wants only some to be saved and the rest to perish.

The multiple wills of God does not resolve the challenge presented by these premises. Why?

First let’s look at the illustration of the judge. God is not like the human judge in Dr. Kruger’s illustration. The human judge, in acting justly, must decide the case set before him. He does not have the right to pardon the guilty. It would be up to a governor to offer a pardon. However, God is both Judge and Governor. He has the right to justly sentence the guilty to punishment. He also has the power to offer mercy and a pardon. Unlike the judge, God as Governor could act on His desire that none perish, by offering a pardon. And, because of the death of Christ, God as Judge can still be considered just.

Now let’s look at the notion of competing desires a bit closer in the Reformed view. According to the WCF, God has two desires that are competing with each other.

  • God wants all to be saved & none to perish
  • God wants only some to be saved and the rest to perish.

It is not a contradiction to have conflicting desires. However, only one of these desires can be acted upon. God might desire that none perish, but He did not act on that desire. Instead, God, according to the WCF, chose to act against that desire and planned to deliberately withhold mercy/grace so that some would perish. God may have a “want” to save all, but He chose not to act on it. Instead, according to the Reformed view, He chose to act on the greater and stronger desire to glorify Himself and demonstrate His power.

Let’s compare that to a person with competing desires.

  • they may want to feed the poor
  • they may want to get a big screen TV

At some point this person goes out and purchases a TV instead of donating that money to feed the poor. As they sit home watching a movie the person may honestly have a desire to feed the poor, but they chose not to act on it. A competing desire won out. In assessing this person we would say that the desire to feed the poor was simply a good intention and, because he did not act on it, the poor are still going hungry. What are we to make of this intention, as good as it may be, if it is not acted upon?  Doesn’t God tell us that we should not just love “in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:18)?

In the Reformed view God has chosen to act on the greater desire to be glorified in power rather than to act on the desire to save all. He acted on this desire by decreeing unchangeably, before creation, that only some would receive mercy. The rest would be left to perish as a demonstration of his power and justice. Each person’s fate, whether deserved or not, was set without any foreknowledge of their actions. In acting on the strongest desire, decreeing that some will perish, all that can be said of the desire to save all was that it was good intention. And we know what they say about the road paved with good intentions. We are all left puzzled as to why God would explicitly tell us about His good intentions if He chose to act against them.

How do other views handle this challenge?

They reject the premise that God wants only some to be saved and the rest to perish.

Non-Reformed views reject the divine determinism that is expressed in WCF III.1. In limiting the exercise of His total power and control, God has allowed people to act and respond to His grace in a resistible way.

God has repeatedly expressed His desire to save all because that is His strongest desire. He acted on this desire in providing Christ as King, Savior, and Priest for all people. His death is sufficient to cover the sins of all (1 John 2:2). Yet, not all are saved because God has also chosen to limit the expression of his power and grant freedom of choice to people. He decreed that the atoning power of Christ’s death would only be applied to those people who are in Christ (1 Cor 15:22; Eph 1:4-14; 2:13; 1 John 5:12). And only those who respond in faith will be placed in Christ (1 Cor 12:13, 27; Eph 3:6). People are not ordained, unchangeably, before creation as either saved or unsaved. They are able to decide, through enabling grace, their eternal fate, which is foreknown by God.

Note: This post originally appeared on DeadHeroesDontSave.com – the article can be accessed here and comments can be added on that page.