Does God want every individual to be saved? This is the main deterrent that will prevent people from becoming Calvinists. The idea that God is not actively trying to save every individual is difficult to bear and does not comport with contemporary wisdom regarding freedom of the will. Many people think that every individual is equally free to choose God. God is pleading with each one of us, desperately laboring in vain to win us over. This is the model that many evangelicals will endorse. They will tell us that God is knocking at the door of every heart and waiting for us to open and let him in. Is that the case? Does God want every individual to be saved?
I can sympathize with the emotional objection that people will have to this idea. But we need to make a distinction between emotional objections and intellectual objections. An emotional objection occurs when you recoil emotionally to some idea or doctrine, and your responses are fueled by the idea that it is not very nice. An intellectual objection is when you survey the potent points of the doctrine and find yourself in disagreement as the result of some shortcoming. If you have an emotional objection, recognize it and admit it to yourself. Your emotion should not control your insight or your doctrine. If it does, you might end up being a universalist or a pluralist.
Calvinism Actually Offers More Hope
While a surface understanding of Calvinism and Arminianism may lead someone to think that Calvinism offers less hope, that is not the case. The idea that God alone determines who will be saved and who remains saved offers more hope than the doctrine that God is actively trying to save all people. As Calvinists, we believe that God’s promises never fail. His plans cannot be thwarted by the will of the people. As Psalm 33:10-11 reads, “The Lord nullifies the counsel of the nations; He frustrates the plans of the peoples. The counsel of the Lord stands forever. The plans of His heart from generation to generation.”
As of this writing, we are currently in an election year. In a normal election year, there would be a candidate for which most people would be very enthusiastic. We would believe that we can trust this individual to lead the charge in our national security and the prosperity of the nation. However, the promises of a human monarch can fail even if they have righteous intentions. We can put all of our trust in these individuals but could never have ontological certainty that their plan will not be thwarted. The things that happen might not be part of their plan and they will have to make adjustments to get the most out of anything that happens.
Does Everything Happen For A Reason?
The same could be said of God on Arminianism. God is actively trying to make the most out of things that happen, but he does not cause them to occur. When a man chooses to reject the gospel, God may try to make the most out of a bad situation, but he is not sovereign over that bad situation. There are two categories of events: bad things brought about the free choices of men and good things wrought by the counsel of God. This is in stark contrast with the model of providence that we see in Scripture. God is sovereign over everything, as even the evil decisions that men make are brought about for his righteous purposes (Isaiah 45:7). Accordingly, we know that in truth, everything happens for a reason and we can put our trust in the God who reigns enthroned as King of the universe.
Does Everyone Deserve A Fair Chance?
Underlying but intrinsic to this objection is the idea that God owes us mercy and grace. God must want every individual to be saved because it would be wrong if he did not. Some theologians, such as Dr. Roger Olson, will go so far as to say that they would apostatize if God did not meet that criteria. By virtue of being human, God is our debtor. This is a position that even some evangelicals will take. Rather than suggesting that they deserve to go to Heaven, they will imply that they deserve a chance to go to Heaven. God must provide an opportunity for every single individual to give it the old college try. He must throw a rope.
I imagine that some Arminians may contest this idea. They may suggest that God does not owe us anything. But think about the objection for a moment (if indeed you do hold this objection). If God saves Bill and not Steve, when he could have saved Steve, has he committed a crime against Steve? If so, then you are assuming that Steve deserve something. If Steve deserves nothing, then no crime has been committed against him.
What Do We Deserve?
But that raises the question of what it means to be saved and how God brings people to Heaven. As Christians, we recognize that everybody is a sinner and deserve to go to Hell. God would be just if he created a universe in which all people were damned and without any hope. If you are going to deny this, then you need to reflect on the wages of sin and the righteousness of God. God cannot allow sin in his sight. He is too righteous and holy. As Romans 6:23 says, “The wage of sin is death.” Since all have sinned, all are deserving of death. When God saves somebody, he does so by grace. Grace is often defined as being unmerited favor. God freely saves us despite that he had no obligation to us. We do not deserve even a chance to be saved but God saves us anyway.
Just imagine a possible world in which every single person goes to Hell. God created a world of creatures who were in bondage to the will and had no hope of reconciliation. If you are an evangelical Christian, then you recognize that God could create this world and still be just and loving. After all, we are sinful creatures and God is the judge. He does not owe mercy to anybody. He does not owe a chance at mercy to anybody. But if that is a possible world, then the objections to God’s sovereignty in salvation instantly dissolve. That is close to the universe that we inhabit. The only difference is that God extends his mercy to some.
Nobody Wants A Chance To Be Saved
Further, nobody actually wants to have a fair shake in salvation. Nobody wants to come to God. People want to be dead in their sins and trespasses. They would rather enjoy the fleeting pleasure of sin than to turn God in repentance and faith. As Romans 3:10-11 says, “There is none righteous, not even one. There is none who understands. There is none who seeks for God.” Arminians will typically agree with this. But they will say that God provides prevenient grace to activate the faith center in every individual so that they can freely choose him. (I argued against this position in my article A Critique of Prevenient Grace).
But that means that God is under obligation not only to provide mercy but also to change your heart so that you will receive the mercy? That seems patently ridiculous. We are rebellious sinners and God is under no obligation to provide grace, mercy, an indeterministic universe or a changed heart. He is God and we are the creatures.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is precisely the opposite. The gospel is that God saves those who have no hope of salvation. He sees people who are dead in their trespasses and sins and saved them independently of any obligation that he has toward us. Salvation is based on his unmerited favor and the mercy that he has on his people. We are all sinful rebels, sentenced to death. We escaped, started a fire, and we are trapped in the burning building. The King sends his Son in to save some of us and have mercy on us. There is no sense in which you could say that he owes mercy to everybody or that we all deserve a fair chance. We receive it freely, by grace.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.” Ephesians 2:8
John 3:16, The World, All People
In these discussions, people often bring up passages which say that God loves the entire world, and that whosoever will come is free to come into salvation. I will only cite one because the response to all of them would essentially be the same. John 3:16 reads, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” The argument that is usually raised is based on the word world. Every individual is part of the world. God sent his Son for the world. Therefore, God sent his Son for every individual. This argument seems to be guilty of the fallacy of equivocation. It treats the word world in different ways in the premises of the argument.
We often do not think about the racial implications of the New Testament. In our society, it is not a very prevalent theme. We recognize that egalitarianism is the proper way to treat one another. (In fact, a historical argument might be made that this diversity is based on the precedent of ethical inclusivism set by historic Christianity. Anybody can receive to the gospel.) But wait a moment. Consider this paragraph that you are reading. I just said that “Anybody” can receive the gospel. What did I mean? Well, based on the context of the paragraph, you have discerned that I was speaking about ethnic inclusivism. All people groups may receive the gospel and be saved.
The Apostles Had The Same Concern
This was a central theme and concern of the writers of the New Testament. The Messiah had come and the kingdom of God is expanding. That infuriated many of those members of ethnic Israel. They were God’s chosen and special people. Peter himself, a champion of the faith, an apostle who holds the keys of the kingdom, fell into that ethnic exclusivism (Galatians 2:11-13). Much of what the apostles wrote in the books of the New Testament served as an apologetic for inclusivism. They emphasized very strongly that the gospel was spreading to the entire world and not just Israel.
When John tells us that God loved the world or that the all people can be saved, the context indicates that he was speaking about people groups rather than every single individual. In the Great Commission, Jesus commanded his disciples to preach the gospel to all nations and baptize them (Matthew 28:19). In the parallel passage of Mark 16:15, Jesus said to go into all of the world. The world and the nations are paralleled. Of course, we do not know who the elect are, so it is our responsibility to preach the gospel to every individual. We can declare the glory of the gospel and the power of the resurrection to every individual and that if they repent and believe, they will be saved.
Not Willing That Any Should Perish
The Society of Evangelical Arminians created a logo with the words “Not willing that any should perish.” Now, of course, this is a wonderful verse when understood in its’ context. But since it is stamped onto the logo of an Arminian group, you have to be suspicious that they are guilty of the same exegetical error as many Arminians. They have taken these verses out of context. The verses that I have in mind are 2 Peter 3:9 and 1 Timothy 2:4. Both essentially say that God wants all people to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4) and that God is not willing that any should perish (2 Peter 3:9). Are they understanding these properly?
The first point worth making is that this does not necessarily establish the Arminian position. God may want different things. For example, a man may want both ice cream and to lose weight. God could want every single individual to be saved, but he has a greater will in mind, namely, he wants both his mercy and justice to be on display. However, this interpretation probably would not stand up to thorough scrutiny of 2nd Peter. But as long as we are battling with one-liners (as this verse is rarely presented in its’ context) then it might be appropriate to raise that point. However, if we are going to have a serious discussion, then I should look at the context.
2nd Peter 3:9
Peter did not make that statement in a vacuum. If he did, it might be more compelling. Instead, he said it in the middle of his discourse about the Second Coming. He said that when the “last days” come, many people will mock Christians. Where is this so-called Second Coming? (verse 4). What is taking so long? Just give up. He’s not coming, you fool. Peter writes this to encourage them. There is a reason that God is taking so long. It is not long to him, because a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years is like a day (2 Peter 3:8). God is patient. He had his reasons for taking so long.
What are those reasons? Peter provides one. He says that you do not have to worry. God is not being slow about keeping his promise (verse 9a). Instead, he is being patient toward you, because he is “…not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” If this is referring to every single individual, then that makes no sense in the context.
No matter how long God waits, there will always be more people who could possibly come into repentance. God could always look forward to the next generation of potential believers and want to wait for them. You could truly say, “What is God waiting for?” That is why it makes more sense to say that God is waiting for the full number of his elect to come into repentance. They are scattered throughout the ages and the nations. He is patiently waiting for all of his people to repent, not willing that a single one of them would perish.
2nd Timothy 4:2
The context of Paul’s letter to Timothy is a little different. It might be argued that Timothy and his church were undergoing some sort of persecution or they were enduring a social injustice at the hand of a king. So, Paul says that Timothy needs to pray for the kings and those who are in authority. He writes in verses 1-2 that he needs to offer prayers for “all men,” for kings and those in authority. This is good and pleasing in God’s sight, who desires all men to be saved. Why did Paul throw in the theological insight that God desires every single individual to be saved? Isn’t that a little odd? It makes more exegetical sense to say that Paul is using the term “all men” in verse 4 in the same way that he did in verse 1. All men includes men of every class, including kings.
Second, in verse 5, he went on to say that there is one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus. This obviously cannot be referring to every single individual. The mediation here is a sacrificial mediation. He is pointing back to the cross of Calvary, where he gave himself as an offering for sin. If Christ is mediating for all individual men, then it follows that the Father does not honor the mediation of the Son or that universalism is true. Since neither of these propositions are true, it follows that the word “man” in verse 5 and the word “all” in verse 6 do not entail every single individual.
Does God Want Every Individual To Be Saved?
God commands that we preach the gospel to all individuals because we do not know who the elect are. He works through us. We may say to anybody that if they repent and put their faith in Jesus Christ, they will find him to be a perfect Savior. They will do according to their desires. Nobody will be left pleading at the doors of Heaven, wanting to be with God, wanting eternal life. Everybody who denies God will do so because they are in love with their sin.
The only reason that I can conceive of to think that God wants every individual to be saved is emotional. None of the logical, moral or scriptural arguments survive a thorough examination. Even the emotional objection begins to dissolve when you realize that God is not refusing people who are repenting. He is giving them what they want. We may say, truly, “The doors to Hell are locked from the inside.”
Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment and tell me why!