Not long ago I posted a brief exposition of Deuteronomy 5:29, which depicts God expressing a wish for the good of sinners who in fact never experienced that good (click here). The study indirectly supports the doctrine of the well-meant offer of the gospel. Some Reformed folk, however, don’t think the idea of a well-meant offer is biblical. They agree that God commands all men everywhere to repent and believe the gospel. But they don’t believe that God desires those whom he obligates (i.e., all men) to comply. In other words, they object to the idea that divine commands or precepts can be understood in any sense as God’s desires or wishes. Below I’d like to provide a string of citations from Reformed and Puritan authors who do in fact construe God’s preceptive will in terms of “desire” or “wish.”
John Calvin (1509-1564)
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). John Calvin, Secret Providence, trans., by James Lillie, Article 7, John Calvin’s reply.
Zacharias Ursinus (1534-1583)
There are four classes of things concerning which men give commandment. These are, first, divine precepts, which God desires, that men should propose unto themselves for their observance, not, however, in their own name, but by the authority of God himself, as being the ministers and messengers, and not the authors of these precepts (emphasis added). Zacharias Ursinus, The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism, trans., G. W. Willard (Phillipsburg NJ: P&R, 1994), 519-520.
Amandus Polandus (1561-1610)
“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, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1978), 85.
Abrahamus Heidanus (1597-1678)
Strictly speaking there is but a single will of God called beneplaciti, whereby God determines by Himself what He wills to do in and concerning the creature. The second is but the sign and indication by which He shows what He wishes creatures to do. But He does not wish them to make His beneplacitum universal; but only the things which He reveals to them, Dt. 29. 29 (emphasis added). Cited in Heirnich Heppe, Reformed Dogmatics, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1978), 87.
François Turretini (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. (emphasis added). Turretin, Francis, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1994) 2:507-509.
John Owen (1616-1683)
It appeareth, then, that the secret and revealed will of God are diverse in sundry respects, but chiefly in regard of their acts and their objects. First, In regard of their acts, the secret will of God is his eternal decree and determination concerning any thing to be done in its appointed time; his revealed will is an act whereby he declareth himself to love or approve any thing, whether ever it be done or no. Secondly, They are diverse in regard of their objects. The object of God’s purpose and decree is that which is good in any kind, with reference to its actual existence, for it must infallibly be performed; but the object of his revealed will is that only which is morally good (I speak of it inasmuch as it approveth or commandeth), agreeing to the law and the gospel, and that considered only inasmuch as it is good; for whether it be ever actually performed or no is accidental to the object of God’s revealed will (emphasis added). John Owen, Display of Arminianism, in The Works of John Owen (reprint, Banner of Truth, 1967), 10:46-47.
Hermann Venema (1697-1787)
God wishes his laws to be obeyed, and therefore wishes also his creatures to be incited in every way to the keeping of them. This purpose is greatly served by the prospect of rewards. But justice loves and demands these rewards. Hermann Venema, Institutes of Theology, trans., by Alex W. Brown, (Andover: W.F. Draper Brothers, 1853), 172.
William Cunningham (1805-1861)
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. William Cunningham, Historical Theology (Banner of Truth, 1994), 2:452.
John L. Dagg (1794–1884)
Closely allied to the last signification, and perhaps included in it, is that use of the term will, in which it denotes command, requirement. When the person, whose desire or pleasure it is that an action should be performed by another, has authority over that other, the desire expressed assumes the character of precept. The expressed will of a suppliant, is petition; the expressed will of a ruler, is command. What we know that it is the pleasure of God we should do, it is our duty to do, and his pleasure made known to us becomes a law (emphasis added). John L. Dagg, Manual of Theology and Church Order, (Harrisonburg, VA: Gano Books, 1982), 100.
Herman Bavinck (1854-1921)
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.
Geerhardus Vos (1862-1949)
We certainly have a right to say that the love which God originally bears toward man as created in His image survives in the form of compassion under the reign of sin. This being so, when the sinner comes in contact with the gospel of grace, it is natural for God to desire that he should accept its offer and be saved. We must even assume that over against the sin of rejection of the gospel this love continues to assert itself, in that it evokes from the divine heart sincere sorrow over man’s unbelief. But this universal love should be always so conceived as to leave room for the fact that God, for sovereign reasons, has not chosen to bestow upon its objects that higher love which not merely desires, but purposes and works out the salvation of some. It may be difficult to realize from any analogy in our own consciousness how the former can exist without giving rise to the latter; yet we are clearly led to believe that such is the case in God. A logical impossibility certainly is not involved, and our utter ignorance regarding the motives which determine the election of grace should restrain us from forming the rash judgment that, psychologically speaking, the existence of such a love in God for the sinner and the decree of preterition with reference to that same sinner are mutually exclusive. For, let it be remembered, we are confronted with the undeniable fact that this universal love of God, however defined, does not induce Him to send the gospel of salvation to all who are its objects. If the withholding of the gospel is consistent with its truthfulness, then a fortiori the withholding of efficacious grace must be. That there are good reasons for the former is true: but undoubtedly God has also His wise and holy reasons for the latter. The Scriptures do not assert that election and preterition are arbitrary decrees to the mind of God. All they insist upon is that the motives underlying them are inscrutable to us, and have nothing whatever to do with the worthiness or unworthiness of man (emphasis added). Geerhardus Vos, “The Scriptural Doctrine of the Love of God,” in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation, ed. Richard B. Gaffin (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1980; 2001), 443–444.
John M. Frame (1939-present)
The decretive will is sometimes called “the will of God’s good pleasure” (beneplacitum). This is somewhat misleading, because Scripture speaks of God’s “pleasure” in both decretive and preceptive senses: for example, decretive in Psalm 51:18 and Isaiah 46:10, and preceptive in Psalms 5:4 and 103:21. Some have also called the decretive will God’s hidden or secret will, but that too is misleading, since God reveales some of his decrees through his Word.
For that reason, I hestitate also to call the preceptive will the revealed will (signum, “signified will”), though that language has often been used for this concept. Preceptive is also somewhat misleading, for it does not always have to do with literal precepts (God’s laws, commandments). Sometimes God’s preceptive will refers not to precepts, but to states of affairs that God sees as desireable, but which he chooses not to bring about (as in Ezek. 18:23; 2 Peter 3:9). The Doctrine of God (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2002), 531.
Some of the citations above I pulled from the page “God Desires Compliance to his Will and Commands as Standard Reformed Doctrine,” on Calvin and Calvinism, which is a helpful historical theology resource. The reader may also want to consult the page “God begging” on Theological Meditations, where numerous citations from Reformed and Puritan writers depicting God himself pleading with sinners to receive the gospel. More importantly, such an understanding of God’s heart toward the lost is consonant with the apostle Paul’s teaching:
Therefore we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making His plea through us. We plead with you on Christ’s behalf, “Be reconciled to God!” (2 Corinthians 5:20 NET)