In this series, I forward a considered case for a universal atonement, presenting what I find to be the most compelling arguments for it, defining what exactly it entails, and interacting with the most common and persuasive objections against it.
This is part 4 of 6, in which I interact with the objection that universal atonement requires that God be at cross-purposes with himself, entertaining frustrated desires which he cannot fulfill.
This objection is, in my view, the least compelling of those I’m going to consider. Generally speaking, it focuses on the sincere offer of the gospel—which universal atonement typically upholds—and tries to show that it forces inconsistency or irrationality on God. That is, if salvation is sincerely offered to everyone, then it follows that God must in fact desire the salvation of everyone. If he didn’t so desire, then he would be insincere to so offer.1 Therefore, universal atonement is said to make God conflicted and irrational—since, as John Owen puts it,
They affirm that God is said properly to expect and desire divers things which yet never come to pass. ‘We grant,’ saith Corvinus, ‘that there are desires in God that never are fulfilled,’ Now, surely, to desire what one is sure will never come to pass is not an act regulated by wisdom or counsel; and, therefore, they must grant that before he did not know but perhaps so it might be. ‘God wisheth and desireth some good things, which yet come not to pass,’ say they, in their Confession; whence one of these two things must need follow, —either, first, that there is a great deal of imperfection in his nature, to desire and expect what he knows shall never come to pass; or else he did not know but it might, which overthrows his prescience.2
Subsequently, consistent particularists deny that God can offer the reprobate salvation sincerely, since to offer something sincerely means that you desire the person take it. Since God knows that the reprobate will not take it, he would be irrational to offer it to them. In fact, since he has decreed that they not take it, it seems plain that he desires the opposite. Vincent Cheung states the matter with his customary force:
The doctrine in question has been called “the free offer,” “the well-meant offer,” and “the sincere offer” of the gospel [...] My position is that it makes God into a schizophrenic fool. It is unbiblical and irrational, and thus must be rejected and opposed [...] we must not present the gospel as a sincere offer to all, as if God’s “desire” can differ from his decree, as if God could or would decree against his “desire” (when Scripture teaches that he decrees what he desires—that is, his “good pleasure”—and what he desires, he decrees and makes certain), and as if it is possible for even the non-elect to be saved [...]3
There are three main faults with this objection:
I. Universal atonement doesn’t necessitate the sincere offer
It must be noted that the arguments I’ve given for a universal scope to the atonement don’t, in and of themselves, necessitate the view that God offers the gospel to the reprobate. As far as I can see, the sincere offer is really a separate issue from the scope of the atonement. My argument that the universal gospel call is undermined if the atonement is not universal does not require that the call be couched as an offer. That’s why I used the term “call”—because it doesn’t favor either view. The gospel is certainly a call, regardless of whether it’s a command only, or an offer as well.
Having said that, though, I think most proponents of universal atonement do believe that the gospel is more than just a command: they do believe that God offers salvation sincerely to the reprobate. Certainly I do. Therefore, it behooves me defuse the particularist objection in other ways.
II. If it succeeds, it refutes particularism as well
It seems very obvious to me that the particularist is either severely myopic in making this objection, or he’s engaging in some monumental special pleading. To show what I mean, let me lay out Owen’s argument that “to desire what one is sure will never come to pass is not an act regulated by wisdom or counsel”:
- If one acts to desire a thing (A), knowing that thing will not come to pass (P), then one does not act in a way regulated by wisdom (W).
- If God acts, then he does act in a way regulated by wisdom.
- Therefore, if God acts to desire a thing, then he does not act to desire a thing which he knows will not come to pass [by modus tollens].
- If the gospel is offered sincerely to everyone (S), this implies that God desires the salvation of everyone (E).
- But the salvation of everyone will not come to pass.
- Therefore, if the gospel is offered sincerely to everyone, God desires a thing which he knows will not come to pass [by hypothetical syllogism].
- But we know that God does not desire anything which will not come to pass [from iii].
- Therefore, the gospel is not offered sincerely to everyone [by modus tollens].4
But taking the gospel call on the particularist’s own terms, wherein it is only a command, the same argument appears to lead to absurd results. Does God not desire or expect his commands to be obeyed? Surely it isn’t even in question that in some sense he desires what he commands, even if only in the sense that his commands are “holy and righteous and good” (Romans 7:12), since they are reflections of his own character. And because they are reflections of his own character, because “just and upright is he”, he has “pleasure in uprightness” (1 Chronicles 29:17) and indeed “loves righteous deeds” (Psalm 11:7). Do I even need to mention that to love something is, by definition, to desire it in some sense?
Given this, in the argument above, if we replace “offered” with “commanded” in regards to the gospel, we are led to the same result. If God really does desire his commands to be obeyed (in whatever sense) when he knows that they will not be obeyed, then he must not be acting in a way “regulated by wisdom”. The particularist therefore is left defending the absurd notion that God in no sense desires what he nonetheless commands, lest he somehow be irrational.
Similarly and conversely, it’s also plain that if you hate something, then in some sense you don’t desire it. Yet, God is “not a God who delights in wickedness” but one who “hates all evildoers” (Psalm 5:4–5). Given the argument above, surely it is equally true that to not desire what one is sure will come to pass demonstrates just as much of a failure of God’s wisdom and counsel? Under any Calvinistic view, God decrees everything which comes to pass. So, in making this argument, the particularist is caught on the horns of a dilemma.
III. The mistake of assuming that God has only a single intention in the atonement
Given the particularist’s argument, either God cannot desire what he decrees, or he cannot desire what he commands. In fact, Vincent Cheung seems to plainly affirm this, saying that we must not pretend “as if God’s ‘desire’ can differ from his decree, as if God could or would decree against his ‘desire’”, because “Scripture teaches that he decrees what he desires” “and what he desires, he decrees”. Vincent seems to be drawing an exclusive relationship between God’s decrees and his desires, so that if—and only if—God has decreed something, then he desires it. This necessarily means, as I’m sure someone with as sharp a mind as Vincent’s will have recognized, that if God has not decreed something, he does not desire it. As I argued to Ron Di Giacomo, who takes a very similar view,5 while it’s certainly true that God decrees something if and only if he desires it, it can’t be commensurately true that he desires something if and only if he decrees it. In fact, it is this view which makes God insane, since under it he in no sense desires that his commands always be followed—in which case they become unintelligible as moral imperatives.
For example, if there is no sense in which God desires all people to repent, then why does he command it? It goes without saying that since he has commanded it, all people ought to do it. But what does it mean for God to absolutely not desire what ought to happen; and instead absolutely desire what ought not to happen? Surely this is a genuine self-contradiction, as opposed to the merely superficial appearance of contradiction entailed by universal atonement, where God has multiple desires regarding the same situation. Ultimately, if the particularist’s objection does succeed here, he commits himself to believing that, in some situations, God desires what is evil while in no sense desiring the opposite.
This is an absurd view of God—one where he appears to unequivocally desire that which is completely contrary to his character, while not desiring in any sense its antithesis, even though it conforms to his character. The only way to make sense of such a view is to assert that God has no desires or attitudes or intentions toward anything whatsoever, except those desires and attitudes and intentions he has toward his ultimate purpose. But what possible justification can there be for such an extreme notion? Can I not simply deny this as plainly absurd given all the times where God evidences genuine desires which are situation specific? As I wrote recently about Jesus’ lament in Matthew 23:37, “it must be acknowledged, and not downplayed, that Jesus is evidencing a sincere and heartfelt lament. As Matthew Henry puts it, ‘the repetition is emphatical, and bespeaks abundance of commiseration’. So we can’t accept [...] that Jesus didn’t really want to gather Israel, despite saying that he did. That would be a plain falsehood, and God cannot lie. It must be the case that our Lord genuinely did want what he said he wanted.”6 This passage alone refutes the particularist view.
As regards the atonement specifically, I argue with Bruce Ware that
God’s intentions in the death of Christ are complex not simple, multiple not single: 1) Christ died for the purpose of securing the sure and certain salvation of his own, his elect. 2) Christ died for the purpose of paying the penalty for the sin of all people making it possible for all who believe to be saved. 3) Christ died for the purpose of securing the bone fide offer of salvation to all people everywhere. 4) Christ died for the purpose of providing an additional basis for condemnation for those who hear and reject the gospel that has been genuinely offered to them. 5) Christ died for the purpose of reconciling all things to the Father.7
Put simply, I deny the premise that it’s somehow irrational for God to desire a thing which he knows won’t occur. In fact, it seems entirely congruent that he entertain a genuine affection toward the reprobate, despite that it will never see fruition—more, it appears to be a logical necessity. In creation, he brings about the circumstances which he most desires—namely a world of sinners who will not all be saved, so that he may be most glorified—and in doing so he necessarily instantiates circumstances wherein he contingently desires the salvation of those already chosen to be lost. Do not the mere facts of (a) his perfect moral character, and (b) the existence of these lost sinners necessitate that he in some sense desires the very thing he has decreed from eternity will not occur? The desire is predicated upon the circumstances which deny its fulfillment (his plan in creation; the ultimate purpose of his will)—yet it is still real. But by merit of the fact that it’s entirely established upon the basis of his greater intention to glorify his name through the reprobation of the sinners towards whom he feels it, it is neither fulfilled nor frustrated. For it to be frustrated, it would have to be in opposition to his greater desire to glorify his name—but certainly he consented to entertain this lesser desire, and to not fulfill it, when he established his plan in creation from eternity. Given this internal consent, I can’t see any way in which he may rightly be called frustrated.
Particularists (if they are consistent) believe that God’s moral nature does not entail any attitude of benevolence toward even the most wretched of damned sinners. But that is not how Calvinists have traditionally understood God’s character. That does not describe a God who is love (1 John 4:8), but merely a God who has love. It does not describe a God who is so perfect that he loves even his enemies, but a God who does no more than the tax collectors by loving his friends (Matthew 5:43ff). So it seems to me that particularists are setting up God as having to be a certain way in order to conform to some platonic ideal of their own making, and then pushing and pulling on Scripture to make it fit. And not to sound uncharitable, but that is a kind of idolatry.
- ↑ Note that this seems to me a sound argument which does reflect what proponents of universal atonement believe. It may be contrasted with an argument sometimes forwarded, but which is unsound, that if Christ died for everyone, then God must desire the salvation of everyone. Given my discussion of federal headship and forensic imputation in part 1 of this series, it should go without saying that this conclusion doesn’t necessarily follow (even if it is true for other reasons). God may have no desire whatsoever for the salvation of the reprobate, yet the nature of federal headship would still make it true that Christ died for everyone.
- ↑ The Works of John Owen, volume 10 (The Banner of Truth Trust, 1967); p 25.
- ↑ Vincent Cheung, ‘The “Sincere Offer” of the Gospel, Part 1′ (http://www.vincentcheung.com/2005/04/05/the-sincere-offer-of-the-gospel-part-1/).
- ↑ For A:
- ¬P → ¬W
- P [mt]
- S → E
- E → ¬P
- S → ¬P [hs]
- P [iii]
- ¬S [mt]
- ↑ Dominic Bnonn Tennant, ‘Does God desire the salvation of all?’ (http://bnonn.thinkingmatters.org.nz/2008/does-god-desire-the-salvation-of-all/).
- ↑ Dominic Bnonn Tennant, ‘Understanding God’s desires’ (http://bnonn.thinkingmatters.org.nz/2008/understanding-gods-desires/).
- ↑ Bruce A Ware, ‘Extent of the Atonement: Outline of The Issue, Positions, Key Texts, and Key Theological Arguments’ (http://www.powerofchange.org/blog/docs/ware_atonement.pdf [PDF; 25 kB]).