A Defense of the Well-Meant Offer: Its Logical Consistency
Having framed the question of and summarized the objections to the “well-meant offer” of the gospel, we’re prepared to defend the doctrine. And our first argument pertains to the doctrine’s logical consistency. Claiming that God desires the salvation of a non-elect sinner and that it’s also the case that God doesn’t desire the salvation of a non-elect sinner sounds illogical. The same would be true of the following juxtaposed remarks: “I like chocolate ice-cream,” and, “I don’t like chocolate ice-cream.” Contradiction! Right? Not necessarily. Let me explain.
Context, Context, Context
Just as the same word may have a different semantic value when placed in different contexts, the significance of an affirmation, an expressed objective, and/or a value statement may change depending on the circumstances (whether real or conjectured) in which its situated. For instance, it’s undeniably true that I like chocolate ice-cream in most situations. But it’s equally the case that I don’t like ice-cream when I’m shivering at the North Pole. Hence, what at first may sound like a contradiction isn’t a contradiction when one understands the different contexts in which each value statement is made or affirmed.
Torn Between the Two
In Philippians 1:20-26, the imprisoned apostle Paul expresses simultaneously a desire to depart this life immediately and a desire not to depart this life immediately. Indeed, he wasn’t sure which to “prefer” and felt “torn between the two” (1:22-23). Schizophrenia?
Two Worthy Alternatives
I don’t think so. Paul’s “dilemma” was not a “contradiction.” His desire to depart this life immediately was predicated on the blessing of being “with Christ” (1:21, 23), certainly a worthwhile objective! On the other hand, his desire not to depart this life immediately was predicated on the prospect of an ongoing ministry among believers (1:22, 24-26), another virtuous objective. The distinct attendant circumstances situate each of Paul’s desires in a different context, relieving Paul’s inward “conflict” of any real contradiction.
Opting for the “Needful” over the “Better”
Yet while Paul’s mutually exclusive desires were logically consistent and morally virtuous when viewed in relation to differing objectives, only one could and would be realized in God’s providence. From a merely personal standpoint Paul preferred to depart and be with Christ. But he had a pretty confident “hunch” that God had decreed he remain on for the sake of the Philippians (1:25-26).1 What’s important for our purposes is the following observation: a person may have two mutually exclusive desires, have a good hunch that one is in accord with God’s decree and the other not, and yet be guilty neither of violating the law of non-contradition nor transgressing the norm of moral propriety.
But what if a person really knew God’s decree for certain? Could he logically and morally desire a state of affairs he knew God had decreed while simultaneously desiring a polar-opposite state of affairs he knew God had not decreed?
To Drink or Not To Drink
Jesus Christ was on mission. Thus he could say, ”My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34). And this mission or work was nothing less than offering himself as a vicarious sacrifice for the sin of the world (John 1:29; cf. Matt 16:21; 20:29; John 3:16). Nor was Jesus coerced into this role. Jesus whole-heartedly desired to complete the Father’s mission “of [his] own initiative” (John 10:17-18; cf. Psa 40:8). Indeed, as the hour approached Jesus unequivocally affirmed his fixed determination to see the mission through:
Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? “Father, save me from this hour”? But for this purpose I have come to this hour (John 12:27).
Yet just a few days later and hours before his trial and crucifixion, the Lord Christ appears to sing a different tune. Faced with the imminent prospect of drinking the “cup” of God’s wrath, Jesus expresses what at first seems to be a mutually exclusive desire. In dead earnest prayer, he cries aloud in Gethsemane,
My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will (Matt 26:39).
On the one hand, Jesus knows the Father’s decreed purpose and wants to fulfill it. On the other hand, Jesus does not want to drink the cup though he knows he’s been called for this purpose. Undoubtedly, he was well aware that his desire to avoid drinking the cup of God’s wrath was “dissonant” with his desire to do what he’d been sent to accomplish and what was consonant with the maximal display of God’s glory (John 12:28; 13:31-32; 17:1, 5, 24). Yet Jesus doesn’t merely passively experience a discordant note of desire, he actively plucks the chord of that dissonant note in the Father’s ear.
Contradiction? Schizophrenia? Cowardice? God forbid!
Nevertheless, Jesus’ “tension” requires more careful thought than Paul’s “dilemma.”
First, it’s wholly agreeable with God’s preceptive will that a perfectly holy and sinless man should desire exemption from divine wrath. When Jesus desired not to drink the cup of God’s wrath, he was viewing that objective as a thing in itself, as isolated from the fabric of God’s overall plan of history. In itself, it is an intrinsically good thing for an innocent man who had heretofore known nothing but God’s smile to desire that that smile not be removed. Indeed, it was the right thing when considered in itself. As Hugh Martin remarks,
Considered simply in itself, to desire exception from the wrath of God was the dictate of his holy human nature, considered as at once sensitive and reasonable and holy. Not to have felt this desire, instead of being holiness unto the Lord, would have argued–we tremble even to think of while we know it could not be–daring contempt of the divine anger and will! Nay: to have such impressive views as Jesus now had of his Father’s wrath, and not be filled with an earnest longing to escape from it (considering the matter simply by itself) would have argued that he did not possess a true human nature with all the sinless sensibilities which are of the essence of humanity.2
Second, Jesus’ desire to avoid God’s wrath is consistent with Jesus’ simultaneous desire to suffer God’s wrath when each desire is contextually situated. Martin is careful to note this important consideration in the citation above. The Savior’s desire to drink the cup of God’s wrath is obviously situated vis-à-vis God’s redemptive design. Indeed, when “the cup” is viewed intertwined within the fabric of God’s overall plan for history—a redemption that includes reprobation and judgment—Jesus could detest the very objective (i.e., that the cup pass from him) that he viewed as desirable when considered by itself. Hence, his desire not to drink the cup cannot be situated in relation to God’s redemptive design (decretive will). That would be a contradiction. Therefore, Jesus’ strong desire not to drink the cup must be viewed intrinsically in relation to God’s moral order (preceptive will).3
We may illustrate the logical coherence of Jesus’ “competing desires” as follows:
Major premise: Jesus desires to drink the cup of the Father’s wrath, an objective that has reference to God’s decretive will.
Minor premise: Jesus does not desire to drink the cup of the Father’s wrath, an objective that has reference to God’s preceptive will.
Minor premise: The two desires and/or objectives above are not univocal but each are circumstantially situated within its own conceptual context.
Conclusion: Jesus’ desire to drink the cup and his desire not to drink the cup are not, therefore, logically contradictory.
The above examples demonstrate that the issue of desirable ends is more complicated than some might think. The issue is, in my view, multidimensional or multiperspectival. True, the above examples relate to human nature. But since man is the imago Dei, the visible replica of God, should we be surprised if we find something of these multidimensional or multiperspectival desires predicated of God? If one finds God-glorifying dissonance in him who is “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb 1:3), is it not possible that the perfect Ectype (Christ) is the reflection of the perfect Archetype (God)?
God Desiring What He Hasn’t Decreed
As the Israelites prepare to enter the Promised Land, Moses recounts for them the Ten Commandments (Deut. 5:6-21), which God had given to their fathers and reminds them how their parents had responded when they heard the Yahweh’s thundering voice from Mount Sinai. They were frightened and awestruck (5:22-26). They pleaded with Moses to mediate between them and God. “Go near and hear all that the LORD our God will say,” they entreat Moses, “and speak to us all that the LORD our God will speak to you, and we will hear and do it” (5:27). God approved of their response. “The LORD heard your words when you spoke to me,” Moses told them. “And the LORD said to me, ‘I have heard the words of this people, which they have spoken to you. They are right in all that they have spoken.’” Literally, “they have done well in all that they have said.”
God’s assessment of their response is amazing given the fact that this is the same bunch of Israelites who would make the golden calf. These are the Israelites who would grumble against the Lord in the wilderness and would never enter Canaan because of unbelief. “With most of them,” the apostle Paul remarks, “God was not pleased for they were overthrown in the wilderness” (1 Cor. 10:5). It would seem that most of these people never experienced heart-circumcision and, as a result, never experienced God’s proffered blessing. Whatever devotion and commitment they expressed at the foot of Mount Sinai was superficial and short-lived.
God Expresses a Wish
Of course, their shallow response didn’t pull the wool over God’s eyes. God knew their professed devotion was only skin-deep. Accordingly, God immediately qualifies his commendation of their initial response with a striking expression that highlights both the spurious quality of their devotion and also God’s wish that it were otherwise:
Oh that they had such a mind as this always, to fear me and to keep all my commandments, that it might go well with them and with their descendants forever! (Deut 5:29)
The opening Hebrew phrase מן יתן (mi-yitten; literally, “who will give?” but idiomatically, “Oh, that it were given!”) signals the optative mood, which is defined as follows: “designating a statement using a verb in the subjunctive mood to indicate a wish or desire.”4 Thus, this passage teaches us that God desires the good of those who never experience that good.
Viewing God’s Desires Perspectivally
If this is so, there’s no objection to the idea that God may genuinely desire the salvation of all men from one perspective (cf. John 3:16)5 though does not desire their salvation from another perspective.6 Obviously, the God of Scripture is no schizophrenic!
These two truths may at first glance seem inconsistent to us. But on further reflection, I don’t think they’re inconsistent or illogical. It’s possible to desire what is intrinsically good when considered by itself (i.e., the obedience of all humans; the happiness of all humans; the salvation of all humans) while at the same time not desire that same objective when it is considered in relation to the overall scheme and goal of history, i.e., the ultimate manifestation of God’s glory. In other words, God’s desiderative desire for the salvation of the non-elect (e.g., Deut 5:29) and his decretive resolve not to effect their salvation are consistent when viewed from the perspective of the distinct attendant circumstances or conceptual framework in which each is situated.7
A Helping Hand From Two Theologians
The great philosopher-theologian Jonathan Edwards gave this theological question serious thought and arrived at a similar opinion:
When a distinction is made between God’s revealed will and his secret will, or his will of command and decree, will is certainly in that distinction taken in two senses. His will of decree, is not his will in the same sense as his will of command is. Therefore, it is no difficulty at all to suppose, that the one may be otherwise than the other; his will in both senses is his inclination. But when we say he wills virtue, or loves virtue, or the happiness of his creature; thereby is intended, that virtue, or the creature’s happiness, absolutely and simply considered, is agreeable to the inclination of his nature. His will of decree is, his inclination to a thing, not as to that thing absolutely and simply, but with respect to the universality of things, that have been, are, or shall be. So God, though he hates a thing as it is simply, may incline to it with reference to the universality of things. Though he hates sin in itself, yet he may will to permit it, for the greater promotion of holiness in this universality, including all things, and at all times. So, though he has no inclination to a creature’s misery, considered absolutely, yet he may will it, for the greater promotion of happiness in this universality. God inclines to excellency, which is harmony, but yet he may incline to suffer that which is unharmonious in itself, for the promotion of universal harmony, or for the promoting of the harmony that there is in the universality, and making it shine the brighter. And thus it must needs be, and no hypothesis whatsoever will relieve a man, but that he must own these two wills of God.8
For those who prefer a distilled version of Edward’s thinking on this topic, I offer the words of John Piper:
Putting it in my own words, Edwards said that the infinite complexity of the divine mind is such that God has the capacity to look at the world through two lenses. He can look through a narrow lens or through a wide-angle lens. When God looks at a painful or wicked event through his narrow lens, he sees the tragedy or the sin for what it is in itself and he is angered and grieved. “I do not delight in the death of anyone, says the Lord God” (Ezekiel 18:32). But when God looks at a painful or wicked event through his wide-angle lens, he sees the tragedy or the sin in relation to everything leading up to it and everything flowing out from it. He sees it in all the connections and effects that form a pattern or mosaic stretching into eternity. This mosaic, with all its (good and evil) parts he does delight in (Psalm 115:3).9
We’ve demonstrated that God may logically desire what he hasn’t decreed. Moreover, it’s my view that God’s wish in Deuteronomy 5:29 has ultimate reference to the saving good of the historical and personal referents within the scope of the text. Some Reformed scholars resist this conclusion and suggest that God only had the temporal well-being of the Israelites in view.10 We’ll address this truncated reading in a later installment. But even if we were to concede that the saving good of the Israelites was not within the purview of this text (which we really don’t), we’ve still established the fact that a person may have “competing” desires that are not necessarily “contradictory.”
The charge that the doctrine of the “well-meant offer” is logically contradictory is, therefore, unjustified.11 Matthew Winzer, an opponent of the well-meant offer, agrees, at least in part. In his critical review of John Murray’s defense of the free offer, Winzer notes, “[Murray] endeavored to clear his position of the slightest hint of contradiction, ensuring readers that by predicating a desire in God for the salvation of all men he was not referring to the decretive will.”12 In Winzer’s view, the problem with Murray’s position is that it fails to “give proper regard to the anthropomorphic language of Scripture,” and it inappropriately predicates genuine desire of God’s preceptive will.13
Hence, if there’s a problem with the doctrine of the “well-meant offer” of the gospel, the problem is not, in my opinion, primarily logical as it is theological. That’s the question on which we’ll focus our attention in our next installment.
- Most commentators agree that Paul’s “confident expectation” of prolonged life and ministry was based neither on a special revelation from God nor on recently received news of favorable legal proceedings but on Paul’s personal assessment of the circumstances and private conviction of the likelihood that God had more earthly ministry for him to do. See, for instance, Robert Johnstone, Lectures on the Epistle to the Philippians (1875; repr., Minneapolis: Klock & Klock, 1977), 107-09; J. B. Lightfoot, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1953), 94; Homer Kent Jr., “Philippians,” in vol. 11 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), 116. [↩]
- Emphasis added. The Shadow of Calvary (1875; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1973), 23. In a similar vein, John Calvin writes, “How was [Jesus'] will free of all fault, when it did not agree with the will of God. If God’s Will is the one rule of what is good and fair, it follows that dissent from it are faulty. I answer, although it is true rectitude to conform all our desires to God’s pleasure [i.e., decretive will], yet there is a certain kind of indirect dissent which is blameless and not reckoned as sin, just as a man might wish the state of the Church to be peaceable and prosperous, and might desire the children of God to be freed from their pains all superstitions to be removed from their midst and the license of the wicked repressed, that they might no longer be hurt. Though these things are right in themselves and may properly be sought by the faithful, yet God’s pleasure is otherwise” (emphasis added). Calvin’s NT Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), 3:150-51. [↩]
- For the common distinction between God’s decretive will and his perceptive will, see John Frame, The Doctrine of God (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2002), 531-33; or John Piper’s “Are There Two Wills in God: Divine Election and God’s Desire for All to be Saved”. [↩]
- See Ronald Williams, Hebrew Syntax: An Outline, 2nd ed. (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 1976), sec. 547; Paul Joüon, A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew (Rome: Editrice Pontificio Istituto Biblico, 2000), sec. 163d; Bruce Waltke and M. O’Connor, An Introduction of Biblical Hebrew Syntax (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1990), sec. 40.2.2d. For other examples of this desiderative construction, see Exod. 16:3; Deut. 28:67; 2 Sam. 19:1; 2 Sam. 23:15; Job 6:8; 14:13; 23:3; Ps. 55:7; Jer. 9:1. The ESV, like nearly all other English versions, appropriately renders the expression with the words “Oh that …” (KJV, ASV, NASB, NKJV, NIV, NLT). A few translations employ the conditional “if only” (NRSV, NET, CSB). But even the “conditional” expression, in this case, carries optative force. [↩]
- I agree with those Calvinist interpreters who see John 3:16 as indicative of God’s salvific stance towards the entire fallen race of humanity. See my “Whosoever Will: Why I Interpret John 3:16 as a Gospel Invitation” (accessed Feb 21, 2012). See also John Calvin, The Gospel According to John 1-10, trans. T. H. L. Parker, vol. 4 of Calvin’s NT Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 73-76; D. A. Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God (Wheaton: Crossway, 2000), 17, 79-80; idem, The Gospel According ot John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 203-07; John Piper, God So Loved the World, Part 2 [↩]
- Some Calvinists resist this conclusion and suggest that the reader interpret the optative predicated of God figuratively, as an anthropopathic expression. At best, the text identifies the kind of heart disposition of which God approves and in consequence of which he rewards, and it indicts the Israelites for failing to manifest such a disposition. The text cannot, according to these interpreters, denote a fervent longing for the salvation of the non-elect since (1) genuine emotions cannot be predicated of God, and (2) unfulfilled desires are logically inconsistent with God’s sovereignty and perfect blessedness. See Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, trans. Bartel Elshout (Orlando: Soli Deo Gloria, 1992), 1:117; John Gill, An Exposition of the Old Testament, 717-18; Matthew Poole, A Commentary on the Holy Bible (reprint, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1962), 1:349; Robert Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 692, n. 25; Matthew Winzer, “Murray on the Free Offer of the Gospel: A Review” (accessed Feb 21, 2012). It must be admitted that Calvin himself avoided the force of such passages and suggested a figurative reading though he affirmed, “[God] invites all promiscuously to (eternal) life.” Commentaries on the Last Four Books of Moses, trans. Charles W. Bingham (reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2003), 1:337; idem, Sermons on Deuteronomy: Facsimile of 1583 Edition (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1987), 259-61. While I don’t object to referring to emotions predicated of God as “anthropopathisms” and affirm a degree of discorrespondence between divine and human emotivity, I don’t agree with way in which the authors referenced above employ the idea of anthropopathism to vacuate Deity of genuine emotional capacity consistent with God’s sovereignty and immutability. Thus, I find the typical “anthropopathic” reading of Deuteronomy 5:29 exegetically unnecessary and biblically unwarranted. I’ll offer my reasons in the next installment of this series. [↩]
- For some theologians, the term “reprobate” invariably relates the sinner to God’s decretive design. If this is the concern of the minority report’s caveat “whether God desires the repentance and salvation of the reprobate sinner qua reprobate or whether God’s desire refers to the connection between the repentance and the salvation of sinners, qua sinners,” I can somewhat sympathize with their concern. On the other hand, I’m not sure whether they’re employing the phrase “qua sinners” to denote the idea that God desires the repentance and salvation of sinners in the abstract, i.e., with no actual historical referents in view. The latter doesn’t comport with texts like Deuteronomy 5:29 or Ezekiel 33:11, which have particular historical persons in view. [↩]
- The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 2 vols. (1834; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1974), 527-28. [↩]
- “Are There Two Wills in God” (accessed Feb 21, 2012). [↩]
- For example, John Gill asserts, “These words do not express God’s desire of [the Israelites'] eternal salvation, but only of their temporal good and welfare, and that of their posterity; for their eternal salvation was not to be obtained by works of righteousness done by them, but their fear or worship of God, or by their constant universal obedience to his commands. They were saved by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, even as we. Their fear of God, and obedience to his will issued indeed in their temporal prosperity ….” For the Cause of God and Truth (reprint, Sovereign Grace Book Club, n.d.), sec. III, 4 [p. 5]. [↩]
- Of course, I’m not denying that there are elements of mystery in attempting to ascertain the relation between God’s decretive and God’s preceptive will. Nor do I deny that a prima facie reading of certain texts when juxtaposed with others may convey an “apparent contradiction,” i.e., paradox. I’m only denying any real contradiction. [↩]
- Winzer cites Murray who writes, “For to say that God desires the salvation of the reprobate and also that God wills the damnation of the reprobate and apply the former to the same thing a the latter, namely, the decretive will, would be contradiction.” See Murray’s “The Free Offer of the Gospel” (accessed Feb 21, 2012). [↩]
- See Winzer, “Murray on the Free Offer: A Review”. The initial wording of my post implied that Rev. Winzer cleared Murray’s doctrine of the “free offer” of all logical contradiction. But as one brother pointed out to me in correspondence, that’s not entirely the case. Since Winzer doesn’t believe God’s so-called “preceptive will” can properly predicate divine volition and because he denies God can have any “unfulfilled desires,” he doesn’t, after all, see Murray’s position as entirely consistent from a logical perspective. For instance, later in his review Winzer writes, ”The result is that [Murray's] report implies what it adamantly denies, that God both wills and does not will, in the same sense, the salvation of the reprobate.” Again, he writes, ”As with the introduction of the report, there is here discovered an inability to distinguish between obligation and futurition…. Thus restricting the preceptive will to the realm of obligation, the report would have been delivered of the error of asserting two contradictory things with regard to God’s will…. As it stands, however, it has said that God both wills and does not will that all be saved. It is to no avail to name one of these wills preceptive whilst accrediting to it a decretive nature. Such a procedure only serves to confuse the issue.” Yet it seems to me that at a formal linguistic level, Winzer acknowledges that Murray position isn’t violating the law of non-contradiction. I believe that’s the point of the excerpt from Winzer’s paper I cite above. It remains to be seen whether Winzer’s critique of Murray’s theological assumptions and exegetic arguments are valid. I hope to show that they are not. [↩]