A Defense of the Well-Meant Offer: Will the Real “Will of God” Please Stand Up!

We’ve noted that the doctrine of the well-meant offer of the gospel is predicated on the belief that God may desire what he doesn’t decree (Part 1). Some within the Reformed community reject such an idea as biblically unwarranted, theologically unsound, and logically inconsistent (Part 2). In our first rejoinder to those who deny the well-meant offer, we pointed out that desiring and not desiring an objective is logically consistent when that objective is viewed intrinsically, on the one hand, and teleologically, on the other (Part 3). In this post, we’ll argue for the theological propriety of the well-meant offer.

God Desires What He Hasn’t Decreed

Speaking of the wilderness generation whose professed devotion to Yahweh turned out to be spurious, God says, “Oh, that their hearts would be inclined to fear me and keep all my commands always, so that it might go well with them and their children forever!” (Deut 5:29, NIV). As noted in the previous post, the opening Hebrew phrase מי 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.”1

Similar expressions of non-decretive divine desire occur elsewhere. Consider the following two examples:

Oh, that my people would listen to me, that Israel would walk in my ways! I would soon subdue their enemies and turn my hand against their foes (Psa 81:13-14, ESV).

Oh that you had paid attention to my commandments! Then your peace would have been like a river, and your righteousness like the waves of the sea (Isa 48:18, ESV).2

In a subsequent post, we’ll address the question of whether texts like these have soteriological implications for the referents addressed. That question aside, a “straightforward” reading of these texts teaches that God desires the good of those who never experience that good. In other words, God may desire what he doesn’t decree.

Not surprisingly, the opponents of the well-meant offer reject the notion that God can have non-decretive desires. They believe such an idea confuses God’s “preceptive will” with God’s real volitional capacity, which, they allege, is only decretive in nature. Let’s consider examine this allegation in more detail.

Will the Real “Will of God” Please Stand Up!

Both sides of the debate usually acknowledge the theological distinction between God’s decretive will and God’s preceptive will. This distinction doesn’t denote two different centers of volition in the Godhead, as if God had two wills. Rather, the distinction, in simple terms, differentiates between what God has chosen to do and what God desires man to do. In the words of Francis Turretin (1623-1687),

It is one thing to will reprobates to come (i.e., to command them to come and to desire it); another to will they should not come (i.e., to nill the giving them the power to come). God can in calling them will the former and yet not the latter without any contrariety because the former respects only the will of precept, while the latter respects the will of decree…. The invitation to the wedding proposed in the parable (Mt. 22:1-14) teaches that the king wills (i.e., commands and desires) the invited to come and that this is their duty; but not that the king intends or has decreed that they should really come.3

The “Decree Only” Position

Opponents of the well-meant offer, however, argue that God’s decretive will, not his preceptive will, is his real will. Since God hasn’t decreed the salvation of all men, it cannot be said that God desires the salvation of all men. For instance, in his rebuttal of John Murray’s defense of the free offer, Matthew Winzer writes,

It is only the will of decree which is the will of God in the proper sense of the term, as an act of volition, for therein God has decreed what shall be done…. The will of precept has no volitional content, for it simply states what God has commanded ought to be done by man…. Had God decreed the salvation of all men, it would be possible to predicate “that God desires the salvation of all men.” Since, however, God has not decreed the salvation of all men, but has only commanded that all men be saved, and since God’s preceptive will only commands what ought to be done, the most that can be said is that God desires that all men be under an obligation to be saved.4

There are a number of problems with this sort of reasoning.

Reducing God’s Will to Choices and Actions

First, the view above confines God’s will to his choices and actions. But the semantic range of the biblical vocabulary as well as the English terminology for God’s volitional capacity includes the ideas of disposition and desire.5 So, on the one hand, God delights (חפץ) in all he does, i.e., his decree (Ps 115:3). On the other hand, God desires (same Hebrew term) particular instances of human obedience that he hasn’t (in every case) decreed (1 Sam 15:22; cf. Hos 6:6-7). From one perspective God’s counsel (עצה) is always accomplished (Isa 46:10). From another perspective God’s counsel (same Hebrew term) is sometimes spurned (Ps 107:11). In one place God’s will (θέλημα) irrresistibly accomplishes its goal (Eph 1:5, 11). But in another place God’s will (same Greek term) is resisted by men (Matt 6:10). The difference, then, is not between God’s will and his commands, as if his commands tell us nothing about his volitional disposition. The difference, rather, is between that which God decides (in his wisdom) to bring to realization and that which he chooses not to bring to realization. Even so, as Jonathan Edwards notes, “his will in both senses [i.e., decretive and preceptive] is his inclination.”6

Confining God’s Revealed Will to Commands

Second, this view tends to limit the substance of God’s preceptive will to “commands” or “obligations” for humans. Such a construal of God’s preceptive will is truncated and misleading. Unfortunately, the phrase “preceptive will” contributes to the confusion. For this reason, it may be preferable to speak of God’s “revealed will” and his “secret will” (see Deut 29:29). Or one may follow R. C. Sproul’s lead and view God’s will from three perspectives:

(a) Sovereign decretive will is the will by which God brings to pass whatsoever He decrees. This is hidden to us until it happens.
(b) Preceptive will is God’s revealed law or commandments, which we have the power but not the right to break.
(c) Will of disposition describes God’s attitude or disposition. It reveals what is pleasing to Him.7

Whatever terms we use and however we slice the pie, we should remember that God’s revealed or preceptive will as contained in Scripture teaches not only what duty God requires of man but also what man is to believe concerning God,8 including his moral character, attitudes, and desires. What’s more, the Bible often predicates (explicitly or implicitly) our duty on God’s character, dispositions, and/or desires. We’re to be holy because God is holy (1 Pet 1:15-16). We’re to pursue godliness because God delights in loyalty, justice, and righteousness (Jer 9:24). And we’re to comply with the terms of God’s gospel and requirements of his law because God wants us to trust and obey (Matt 21:28-31).9

Refusing to Infer the Indicative from the Imperatives

Third, this view often assumes the erroneous notion that one cannot infer indicatives (e.g., God desires sinners to comply with the terms of the gospel) from imperatives (e.g., God commands sinners indiscriminately to comply with the terms of the gospel). Luther’s derisive response to Erasmus is usually enlisted to support this supposed axiom:

Even grammarians and schoolboys on street corners know that nothing more is signified by verbs in the imperative mood than what ought to be done, and that what is done or can be done should be expressed by words in the indicative. How is it that you theologians are twice as stupid as schoolboys, in that as soon as you get hold of a single imperative verb you infer an indicative meaning?10

Luther is responding to Erasmus’s claim that human ability may be inferred from human responsibility. While Luther rightly rejected Erasmus’ notion of free will, he employs a poor argument at this point. After all, Luther himself infers an indicative, i.e., human responsibility, on the basis of divine imperatives. Moreover, the argument that human responsibility (inferred from God’s commands) assumes human ability is justified with proper qualifications. Because of the Fall and an inherited sinful nature, unregenerate humans no longer have the spiritual or moral ability to obey God’s commands. However, sinners still have the ontological and constitutional ability to obey God’s commands inasmuch as they are still human and God’s image. Hence, God commands humans what he does not command rocks, trees, or animals. Furthermore, when God commands humans to comply with his commands, humans are justified to infer that God wants them to comply, much like my children are correct to infer the same from the requirements I, as their father, impose on them.

The “Both/And” Position

I suspect that the attempt to identify God’s real or essential will with God’s decree is partly motivated by a concern to reconcile what may appear to be contradictory Scriptural data. On the one hand, the Bible teaches that God’s will is not presently being fulfilled on earth as it is in heaven (Matt 6:10). On the other hand, the Scriptures are no less emphatic in affirming that God’s will is carried out in heaven and earth (Ps 135:6). Some theologians, especially those who deny the free offer of the gospel, think the solution is to locate God’s real will in his decree and to empty God’s preceptive will of any volitional significance.11

Solution Identified

But, as I’ve argued above, both God’s decretive will and also his preceptive will reveal God’s moral values and volitional inclinations. The solution to the apparent contradiction is not to identify one of these “wills” as real and the other not. The solution, rather, is to distinguish between God’s actualized and his non-actualized desires. Moreover, we can account for God’s desiring an objective decretively and not desiring that same objective preceptively by distinguishing the different contexts in which God views the objective.

Solution Illustrated

By way of illustration, God may desire to afflict a righteous man like Job decretively (Job 1:12-22; 2:6-10) while simultaneously not desiring to afflict righteous people like Job preceptively (Lam 3:33-36). Viewed intrinsically as an end in itself, God doesn’t take delight in Job’s afflictions. But God does delight in Job’s suffering when viewed teleologically in relationship to God’s meta-plan. The same may be said of God’s volitional posture toward human sin. On the one hand, God’s will is clearly disinclined toward human sin and misery when that sin and misery is viewed intrinsically. On the other hand, God’s will is inclined to permit human sin and use it for his declarative glory when that sin is viewed teleologically.

Solution Applied

Similarly, it’s logically consistent and theologically appropriate to affirm God’s desire for the repentance and consequent blessing of non-elect sinners when viewed intrinsically, as an end in itself (Deut 5:29; Ps 81:13-14; Isa 48:18; Ezek 18:31-32; 33:11; Luke 13:35; John 5:34; 2 Pet 3:9), while at the same time affirming that God doesn’t resolve to bring about their repentance and consequent blessing when viewed teleologically, as related to God’s overall plan of salvation. Once again, we may recall the words of Jonathan Edwards:

[God’s] 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.12

B.G.

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  1. Emphasis added; 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. []
  2. Though these two passages use different a different Hebrew expression to express the optative (לוא ;לו) than the one employed in Deut 5:29, the desiderative sense is essentially the same. []
  3. Emphasis added; Institutes of Elenctic Theology, trans. George Musgrave Giger (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1994) 2:507-509. []
  4. Emphasis his; “Murray on the Free Offer: A Review” (accessed April 19, 2012). []
  5. In common English usage, the “will” (noun) refers not only to the faculty of conscious and especially of deliberate choice or action, but also of dispositional attitudes and inclinations, such as “wish” and “desire.” Similarly, the corresponding Hebrew and Greek terminology (e.g.s., חק ,חפץ ,עצה; θέλημα, βουλή, εὐδοκία/εὐδοκέω) can denote God’s decretive purpose, on the one hand (Isa 46:10; 48:14; Micah 7:11; Matt 11:26; Eph 1:5, 11), as well as God’s preceptive desire, on the other (Ps 107:11; Mark 3:35; Rom 12:2; 1 Cor 10:5). []
  6. Emphasis added; From Edwards’ miscellaneous remarks on God’s decree in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 2 vols. (1834; reprint, Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth, 1976), 2:528. []
  7. Emphasis his; Essential Truths of the Christian Faith (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1992), 73. []
  8. The answer to the Shorter Catechism’s Q3: What do the Scriptures principally teach? []
  9. Reformed theologians, like Turretin cited above, commonly depict God’s preceptive will in terms of his “desire” or “wish.” For instance, John Calvin (1509-1564) writes, “What I have said of the precepts, abundantly suffices to confound your blasphemies. For though God gives no pretended commands, but seriously declares what he wishes and approves [Latin: vult et probat.]; yet it is in one way, that he wills the obedience of his elect whom he efficaciously bends to compliance; and in another that of the reprobate whom he warns by the external word, but does not see good to draw to himself. Contumacy and depravity are equally natural to all, so that none is ready and willing to assume the yoke.” Emphasis added; Secret Providence, trans. James Lillie, Article 7. Amandus Polandus (1561-1610) remarks, “It is called voluntas signi, because it signifies what is pleasing to God, what belongs to our duty, what He wishes to be done or omitted by us, etc.” These “signa voluntatis, from which it is known what God wills”, are “precept, prohibition, permission, counsel, and the fulfilment of predictions.” Emphasis added; cited in Heinrich Heppe, Reformed Dogmatics, trans. G. T. Thomson (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1950), 85. William Cunningham (1805-1861) observes, “Many of the events that take place,–such as the sinful actions of men,–are opposed to, or inconsistent with, His will as revealed in His law, which is an undoubted indication of what He wished or desired that men should do. Emphasis added; Historical Theology (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1994), 2:452. Herman Bavinck agrees and writes, “The term “expressed or signified will” owes its origin to the fact that this will “expresses” or “signifies” what is pleasing to God and is our duty. It is made known to us by means of the five “signs” or “marks”: “precept, prohibition, counsel, permission, and operation.” Emphasis added; The Doctrine of God, trans. William Hendricksen (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1955), 237. []
  10. Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will (Baker Book House Company, 1994), 159, as cited by Sean Gerety in “Janus Alive and Well: Dr. R. Scott Clark and the Well-Meant Offer of the Gospel,” The Trinity Review 300 (June-July 2011): 9. []
  11. Comparing and contrasting the Lutheran and Reformed formulations of God’s will, Herman Bavinck remarks, “The Reformed … proceeded from ‘the will of God’s good pleasure’ [i.e., his decretive will]; they regarded this as the realessential will of God. That will is always fulfilled; it always effects its object; it is eternal and immutable. The ‘expressed’ or ‘signified’ will, on the contrary, is God’s precept revealed in the Law and in the Gospel; it is for us the rule of life.” Emphasis added; Doctrine of God, 238. Cf. Richard Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 450-52, 456-63. For a rejection of this view, see John Frame, The Doctrine of God (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2002), 537-38. []
  12. The Works of Edwards, 2:528. []
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