Does God Desire the Saving Good of Those Who Never Believe?
Unlike you and me, when God makes a wish he has both the power and prerogative to effect its fulfilment. “Our God is in the heavens,” declares the psalmist, “he does all that he pleases” (Ps. 115:3). Nevertheless, the Sovereign God of all creation has not chosen to fulfil every one of his wishes he has disclosed to us. The Lord expressly desired that Adam and Eve refrain from eating the forbidden fruit (Gen. 2:16-17), yet he ordained their Fall (Gen. 3:1-6). He plainly wants all moral creatures on earth to conform to his revealed moral standard, as do the moral creatures in heaven (Matt. 6:10). Yet he not only allows men to break his law but also uses their evil deeds to accomplish his plan (Gen. 50:20; Acts 4:27-28). And God declaratively wishes that sinners might turn from their rebellious autonomy, embrace their Creator as Lord and Savior, and enjoy God’s saving blessing. But God has not chosen to bring to fruition the salvation of every sinner. In other words, while God fulfills all his decreed desires, he hasn’t chosen to fulfill every one of his prescriptive or revealed desires.1 This mysterious reality2 is underscored in a text like Deuteronomy 5:29.
God Desires the Good of Those Who Never Experience That Good
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 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’s Qualified Assessment
God approved of their response: “The LORD heard your words when you spoke to me. 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 generous assessment of their response is amazing given the fact that this is the same bunch of Israelites who would make the golden calf (Exod 32:1-8). This is the same bunch of Israelites who would grumble against the Lord in the wilderness (Num 14:1-4; 21:4-5; Deut 1:27-29). This is the same bunch of Israelites who 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; cf. Num 14:21-38). So most of these people were reprobates and are probably now suffering in hell. Whatever devotion and commitment they expressed at the foot of Mount Sinai was superficial and short-lived.
God’s Expressed 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 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!” (NIV)
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.”3 The NIV, like nearly all other English versions, appropriately renders the expression with the words “Oh that …” (KJV, ASV, NASB, NKJV, ESV, NLT). A few translations employ the conditional “if only” (NRSV, NET, CSB). But even the “conditional” expression, in this case, carries optative force. Thus, this passage teaches us that God wishes for or desires the good of those who never experience that good.
Before highlighting the implications of this text for the doctrine of the well-meant offer, we need to clarify both the objects and the objective of God’s desire.
The Objects of God’s Wish
God’s wish is directed toward “their hearts,” “them,” and “their children.” The obvious antecedent of the 3rd person plural pronouns is the first generation of Israelites who were delivered from Egypt but the great majority of whom died in the wilderness (Deut 1:26-36; 5:1-6, 22-28, 30). Of course, Moses also employs the 2nd person plural to emphasize the solidarity of the second generation of Israelites to whom he’s speaking and the first generation of Israelites about whom he’s speaking (see Deut 5:2-3).
While the second generation of now living Israelites may be the objects of God’s wish from a rhetorical standpoint, the first generation of now dead Israelites are the objects of God’s expressed wish from a historical standpoint. In both cases, the objects of God’s desire are real people, not some abstract entity. It is not merely that God wished the good of generic sinners who never existed but that he wishes the good of particular sinners who lived and died.
The Objective of God’s Wish
The objective of God’s wish is twofold. That is, God’s desire has both a proximate and also an ultimate aim.
Faith and Devotion
Proximately, God wishes that the devotion expressed by the first generation and, by implication, that of the entire second generation were heart-deep and long-lived: “that their hearts would be inclined to fear me and keep all my commands always.” The devotion God demands and desires from the Israelites is nothing less than that which assumes genuine faith, springs from whole-hearted love, and issues in evangelical obedience (Deut 6:4-6). Once again, it is not merely faith, love, and obedience as abstract virtues that God is said to desire. Rather, God is said to desire that such virtues should find realization in the historical referents of the text, i.e., the Israelites.
Ultimately, God wishes the Israelites identified would believe, love, and obey him “so that it might go well with them and their children forever!” The Hebrew particle translated “so that” (למען) denotes result. Hence, God does not merely wish that the Israelites would fulfill the stipulations of the covenant but that they would, as a result, enjoy the promised blessings of the covenant. Here, the blessings are summarized as perpetual good (ייטב … לעלם). Such good or prosperity certainly has reference to the temporal blessings proffered in the Mosaic covenant, i.e., health, wealth, fruitfulness, and an earthly inheritance (Deut 11:8-32; 28:1-14). But the fact that such blessing is predicated on the assumption of a “circumcised heart” (Deut 10:16; 30:6) strongly suggests that such temporal blessings did not exhaust the good for which God wished but served as “shadows” of something better. In other words, Moses is claiming that God expressly desired the eternal good of these Israelites. As Matthew Henry comments on this text are apropos:
The God of heaven is truly and earnestly desirous of the welfare and salvation of poor sinners. He has given abundant proof that he is so: he gives us time and space to repent, by his mercies invites us to repentance, and waits to be gracious; he has sent his Son to redeem us, published a general offer of pardon and life, promised his Spirit to those that pray for him, and has said and sworn that he has no pleasure in the ruin of sinners.4
Summing It Up
If my exposition of Deuteronomy 5:29 is correct, it supports the notion that God can desire the salvation of individuals and the human response on which such salvation is contingent, yet not purpose that such objectives be realized in history. In such cases God’s revealed desires are no less real than his decretive desires. Both spring from his moral nature and signify his inward inclinations. Yet, for reasons ultimately known to God, he resolves to bring to fruition certain of his desires and not others. If this is so, there’s no objection to the idea that God may genuinely desire the salvation of fallen humans indiscriminately (cf. John 3:16)5 though he does not decree the salvation of all sinners. Mystery, yes. Contradiction, no!6
The Objections Considered and Answered
Some object to the exegetical and theological conclusions above. On the basis of texts like Psalm 115:3, they argue that God’s desires must be coterminous with God’s decrees. That is, all that God desires he must decree. Or, all that God decrees exhausts all that God may desire. Accordingly, they impose one or more of the following limitations on the text.
God Desires the Good of the Israelites Only
John Gill denies that this text supports the notion that “God has vehemently desired the salvation of all mankind” on the grounds that “these words can be no proof since they only regard the people of Israel, who were the fewest of all people.”7
There are at least two problems with this line of reasoning.
First, even if it were true it would still establish the point that God may desire what he doesn’t decree. Thus, one of the primary arguments against the well-meant offer is removed. For if God may desire the salvation of certain Israelites whose salvation he doesn’t sovereignly bring to fruition, what objection can there be to the notion of God desiring the salvation of certain non-Israelite sinners whose salvation he doesn’t sovereignly bring to fruition?
Second, the the apostle Paul sees sinful Israel as paradigmatic for sinful humanity (Rom 3:10-19) and interprets the unbelief of the wilderness generation as paradigmatic of the unbelief that characterizes all men–even professing believers (1 Cor 10:1-14). What’s more, the blessings God desired for Israel were never intended to terminate on them but to extend to all the nations (Gen 12:1-3; Matt 28:19-20; Luke 24:46-47; Acts 1:8; Rom 11:25-32; Gal 3:8-9, 16-29; Eph 2:11-22). Thus, Gill’s attempt to limit the application of Deuteronomy 5:29 to the Jews is gratuitous.
God Only Desires Their Temporal Welfare
It would seem that Gill himself sensed the weakness of his argument above since he quickly moved on to suggest alternative interpretations. “These words,” Gill avers, “do not express God’s desire of their eternal salvation, but only of their temporal good and welfare, and that of their posterity” (emphasis added). And why, one might ask, must we limit the blessing envisioned to the Israelite’s temporal welfare and exclude from its purview their eternal salvation? Gill replies,
For their eternal salvation was not to be obtained by works of righteousness done by them, by their fear or worship of God, or by their constant universal obedience to his commands.8
Once again, this alternative reading fails. Like the reading above, it falls short of accomplishing what Gill wishes it to accomplish, namely, to prove that God cannot desire what he doesn’t decree. For in the case of the wilderness generation, God did not effectually secure their devotion and temporal welfare. He remained displeased with most of them and, as a result, prevented them from entering the land (1 Cor 10:1-5).
Moreover, as argued above, the “fear” envisioned is one which springs from a regenerate heart, assumes saving faith and repentance, and issues in evangelical obedience (Deut 6:4-6; 10:16; 30:6). Curiously, in another place, Gill seems to agree that the “fear” here depicted is the kind that assumes saving faith and repentance:
[This "fear of God"] is not naturally in the heart of man, it a gift of God, a part of the covenant of grace, is implanted in regeneration, and is no inconsiderable branch of it; it is opposed to pride, and is consistent with faith and joy, and is increased by views of the grace and goodness of God, and is a distinguishing character of a good man.9
Furthermore, Gills goes on to suggest that the blessing in view not only concerns the Israelite’s temporal welfare but also includes “their inward peace and spiritual welfare.”10
So what Gill takes away with one hand he puts back with the other. Not surprisingly, he’s forced to allow “that the saving work of conversion is here wished for” and to offer yet another interpretation.
God Only Seems to Their Desire Salvation
While Gill is willing to concede that the text portrays God as wishing for the salvation of these Israelites, he’s not willing to ascribe a real desire to God in this case. “We are not to imagine,” he writes, “that such velleities and wishes are strictly and properly in God; who speaks … by an anthropopathy, after the manner of men.”11 If asked why God would portray himself as desiring these Israelites’ if he did not really desire their salvation, Gill replies
Perhaps this mode of expression may be used on purpose to convince them of their want [lack] of such an heart, and of the necessity of such an one, and that God only could give it to them; and therefore they should apply to him for it…. Or, these words may be considered as an upbraiding of these people with the want [lack] of an heart to fear the Lord, and with want [lack] of ability to keep all his commandments, and that always, notwithstanding the vain boasts and empty resolutions they had just now made.12
Gill is not alone. In a similar fashion, John Calvin, when preaching on this text, asserted,
God, therefore, to make the people perceive how hard a matter it is to keep the law, says here, I would feign it were so…. True it is that here God speaks after the manner of men; for he needs no more but wish things done, all things are in his hand…. And why does he pretend to wish it in this text? It is because he speaks after the manner of men … to the end that when there is any mention made of walking in obedience to Godward, we should understand that it cannot be done without hardness, and that our wits should be wakened to apply ourselves earnestly to that study.”13
At best, the text may imply the kind of behavior of which God approves in the abstract. Beyond that, its purpose is simply rhetorical, that is, to move the reader to conviction and/or action. In the words of Matthew Winzer, “Such expressions, then, are intended to instruct the hearers as to what their passion ought to be, not to indicate that God is characterized by such passions Himself.”14
Several rejoinders may be offered to the “anthropopathic” interpretations represented above.
God’s Not Pretending
First, one may affirm that the text has a rhetorical function while also insisting that the human behavior enjoined is predicated on the divine disposition described. In other words, the inferred imperative (“you people should fear God always”) is based on an implied indicative (“God wants you to fear him always”). When my wife says, “Honey, I really wish you’d take me out for a date tonight,” she doesn’t intend for me to interpret her expressed wish as “feigned” or “pretended.” Nor is her aim simply to define my duty. Instead, she expects me to infer (rightly) that she really wants me to do what she’s expressed as a wish. Similarly, God isn’t “faking it.” Every Israelite in covenant with God should obey him because he genuinely wants them to obey.
Ironically, after affirming Calvin’s depiction of God’s “wish” as “feigned” or “pretended,” Matthew Winzer goes on to affirm it as a real desire by narrowing the scope of the text to elect Israel:
The divine expression of desire for His commandments to be obeyed and for His promises to come to fruition [in Deut 5:29] is not an unfulfilled desire at all. For God understakes on behalf of elect Israel to put His laws into their minds and to write them in their hearts, so that the promise to be their God and to bless them as His people comes to fruition (Heb. 8:10).
That God undertakes on behalf of elect Israel is a biblical truth. That all the persons identified in Deuteronomy 5:29 represent “elect Israel” is a misreading of the text. And Mr. Winzer can’t have it both ways–either the wish depicted is “feigned” or it’s real.
God’s “Wish” Means Something Like “Desire”
Second, one may agree that volitional and emotional capacities ascribed to God are not exactly equivalent to human dispositions and desires. But they are analogous. Of course, God’s desires are not “need-based” or “uncontrollable” or even susceptible to being frustrated from without. If God desires an objective or state of affairs that’s never realized in time and space, the reason ultimately resides not with outside forces to which God is subject but rather with God’s own freedom to prefer and to pursue other objectives or states of affairs he deems more desirable. For example, King Saul’s failure to carry out Yahweh’s directives is depicted not merely as contrary to God’s command but as contrary to God’s desire (1 Sam 15:22). Conversely, King David’s adultery and murder are depicted not merely as behavior falling short of God’s moral law but also as that which “displeased the Lord” (2 Sam 11:27). Hence, God’s “wish” depicted in Deuteronomy 5:29 is not identical to but very much like what humans know as “desire,” just without the human limitations or imperfections.15
God’s Desires Aren’t Always Decrees
Third, the anthropopathic readings above are predicated on an unbiblical dichotomy between God’s decretive will and his revealed will, as if the former represents his actual disposition and the latter only a “sign” for human duty. But as we argued elsewhere16, both God’s decretive will and also his revealed will disclose God’s moral nature and that to which his will and affections incline. Where the two seem contrary may be explained on the basis of God’s viewing two mutually exclusive objectives or states of affairs from different perspectives.17 God might desire the devotion and consequent blessing of the wilderness generation as a thing in itself. The same is true of Saul and David’s obedience. Yet God did not decree Saul’s and David’s obedience in the particular instances referenced above. Nor did he decree the devotion of the Israelites addressed in Deuteronomy 5:29. In such cases, God’s desire (decretive) has reference not to the persons and outcomes considered by themselves but considered in relation to the totality of history and its ultimate outcome.
It’s true enough that “whatever God wills is done” (Ps 115:3 NAB). But God’s will in this case is his decretive purpose, and God’s decretive purpose doesn’t not exhaust every conceivable objective or state of affairs that God may desire.18 The objectives and state of affairs envisioned in Deuteronomy 5:29 are a case in point. Thus, we’re constrained to agree with John Murray when he writes,
There can be no room for question but that the Lord represents himself in [texts like Deuteronomy 5:29] as earnestly desiring the fulfillment of something which he had not in the exercise of his sovereign will decreed to come to pass. This bears very directly upon the point at issue.19
- For the common distinction between God’s decretive will and his revealed or preceptive will, see my “A Defense of the Well-Meant Offer: Will the Real Will of God Please Stand Up!” and John Frame’s The Doctrine of God (Presbyterian & Reformed, 2002), 531-33. [↩]
- I’m using the adjective “mysterious” in the sense of “that which is not easily comprehended or fully explained.” That God has chosen to effect salvation for some but not all is plainly revealed (Matt 24:22, 24, 31; John 10:14-16; Acts 13:48; Rom 8:30; 9:18-27; 11:7, 25; Eph 1:3-5; 2 Tim 2:10). Moreover, we can conclude from Scripture that God’s decree to save some but not all is consistent with his wisdom, goodness, and justice and that his decree will result in “the greater good” (Gen 50:20; Ps 76:10; Acts 2:22-23; Rom 8:28; 9:23; 11:32-36; Eph 1:6-14; James 1:17). Nevertheless, God has not explained precisely how or why decreeing “x” number of sinners to be saved secures “the greater good” rather than electing one more or one less or even all. Here we must be content with that God has revealed and leave “the secret things” to God (Deut 29:29; Rom 11:33-34). [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- Commentary on the Whole Bible (reprint, Fleming H. Revell Co., n.d.), 749. [↩]
- 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 [↩]
- I address and discount the alleged contradiction here: “A Defense of the Well-Meant Offer: Its Logical Consistency.” [↩]
- Emphasis his. The Cause of God and Truth (1735-37; reprint, Evansville, IN: Sovereign Grace Book Club, n.d.), 5. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- An Exposition of the Old Testament (London: William Hill Collingridge, 1852), 718. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- For the Cause of God and Truth, 5. [↩]
- Ibid., 6. [↩]
- Sermons on Deuteronomy: Facsimile of 1583 Edition (Reprint, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1987), 260. (I have updated the English spelling and punctuation where necessary.) I’m not sure why Calvin feels constrained to interpret God’s words here as “feigning” or “pretending” to wish for the salvation of even the unbelieving Israelites since elsewhere he seems to take at face value the apostle Peter’s statement that God isn’t willing that any sinner should perish but that all should come to repentance. In Calvin’s words, “This is His wondrous love towards the human race, that He desires all men to be saved, and is prepared to bring even the perishing to safety. We must notice the order, that God is prepared to receive all men into repentance, so that none may perish.” The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews and The First and Second Epistles of St Peter, trans. William B. Johnston, in Calvin’s NT Commentaries, eds. David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 364. See also his commentary on John 3:16 and Romans 2:4. [↩]
- “Murray on the Free Offer: A Review” (accessed Oct 22, 2012). [↩]
- For a more balanced view of divine emotivity and so-called anthropopathisms, see my article, “The Passionate Impassible God: Toward a Biblical View of Divine Emotions.” [↩]
- See my article, “A Defense of the Well-Meant Offer: Will the Real Will of God Please Stand Up!” [↩]
- See my “A Defense of the Well-Meant Offer: Its Logical Consistency” [↩]
- Neither the analogy of Scripture nor the syntax of Psalm 115:3 demands that the Hebrew be interpreted as comprehending all that God might desire. The same terminology and construction is used with respect to Solomon’s planning and building of the temple: whatever Solomon determined to do he did (see 1 Kings 9:1). This expression doesn’t preclude the possibility that Solomon may have contemplated other “desirable possibilities.” It simply means that nothing hindered him from bringing to realization what he ultimately wanted to bring to realization. This same sense can be applied to Psalm 115:3. [↩]
- The “point at issue” is, according to Murray, whether God has any disposition of lovingkindness toward the non-elect and whether it can be said that he genuinely has pleasure and delight in contemplating their blessedness in connection with their compliance with the offer of the gospel. See “The Free Offer of the Gospel: The Majority Report” (accessed Oct 22, 2012). See also Thomas J. Crawford, The Mysteries of Christianity (Edinburgh: William Blackward & Sons, 1874), 351-352; K. W. Stebbins, Christ Freely Offered (Strathpine North, Australia: Covenanter Press, 1978), 43-44; Samuel E. Waldron, Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith (Evangelical Press, 1989), 122. [↩]