There is no peace between God and man, until that man admits his treachery, throws down his arms of rebellion and surrenders swearing fealty to the King. For this reason, the gospel cuts both ways. While we might refer to it as good-news, it is only good to those who acknowledge, embrace and submit to it.
This truth makes little headway into segments of popular Christian thought. The approach that gets much more “air time” is: God is love, God is good, and He gets no joy out of the wicked perishing; therefore, God desires all people to be saved. The first three statements about God are true, the conclusion is suspect however. Part of the reason, or maybe it’s the entire reason (who can say for sure?), is rooted in our understanding of the nature of God.
Recently, I heard a popular Christian apologist (Michael Brown) argue for the conclusion thus far presented. He gave a slew of biblical verses to back up his conclusions, but the one that caught my attention was Acts 17:30. He took this command of God and assigned it to the desire of a loving, good God who desires all people to be saved.
As I said earlier, this is a very popular argument presented by the modern Evangelical Church. My question is how accurate is it? That’s what I intend to look at in this closing post, and my main concern is whether we have unknowingly made the Potter like the clay?
In what follows, I’m going to cite the passage from which a specific truth of God is drawn from and then compare it with a panoramic view of the rest of Scripture, in order to see if the modern conceptions of God are valid. To attempt this in a blog post is perhaps a bit much, but I’ll put forth an effort.
If, along the way, you see something I’ve missed or have a question about why I draw a particular conclusion, then by all means speak up. I enjoy the dialogue, even if the voice is a dissenting one. Let’s get started…
God is Good = God is a god of goodness = God’s goodness applies to All
Jesus makes this categorical statement about God being good in a response to a rich young ruler seeking eternal life.
- “And Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone’” (Mark 10.18; also, Matt 19.17; Luke 18.19).[i]
Jesus identifies two truths in one statement. The first is often smooshed over: “man is not good.” According to Jesus man is not good, he’s evil. The second is that “God alone is good.”
(Just in case there’s an atheist or agnostic reading this, I want to quickly point out that Jesus is not saying: He’s not God. The gospels identify Him as God in the flesh, and Jesus says He shares equal status with the Father. No mere creature can make that claim, and the Jews often recognizing this immediately want to put Him to death for blasphemy. Which, they do when the predetermined time comes for Him to offer Himself up for His sheep.)
What this statement about God is not saying is that God’s goodness is offered in the same degree to all people. Nor is it saying that God’s goodness prevents Him from doing things that man finds fault with. Whether or not you are guilty of making the Potter like the clay is seen in how you deal with those “troublesome” passages of Scripture.
In the second century a heretic by the name of Marcion denied that Jesus and the “God of the Old Testament” were the same God, because the God of the Jews was so wicked towards humanity. Not too long ago there was a popular professing Christian blogger “Rachel Evans” who admitted that she struggled with many of writings of the Old Testament. Passages that were troublesome because she could not rectify how a “good God” could do such things. Her conclusion was then to deny the historical reliability of them.
When I was working on my B.A., the wisdom-lit professor struggled with how Christians should handle the imprecatory Psalms of David. His conclusion (again a popular one) was that the language was to be interpreted hyperbolically, for surely a good God would not really want those things to come to pass. And yet, we read that David is a prophet (Acts 2.30), a man after God’s own heart (Acts 13.22), and he was being carried along by the Holy Spirit when he wrote them (Acts 1.16, 4.25). That is to say, they were righteous, good prayers that God sanctioned and God would acknowledge.
I think it is natural to blanch at them at first glance[ii], but the wise person will recognize that this is precisely how God dealt with the nations that were not His people. Lest we forget the Canaanite conquest, or the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, or the catastrophic Flood of Noah’s day, and many, many more cases that we are either ignorant of or ignore in the Bible. Were not the children of such wicked ones “dash[ed]…against the rock[s]?” (Psa 137.9). God makes a clear distinction between those who are His and those who are not. He gives good to those who honor Him (Psa 31.19). He is not required to give the same good to those who do not (Psa 31.17).
God is Love = God is a god of love = God love Everyone Unconditionally
The apostle John’s 1st epistle is sometimes nicknamed the “love letter.” One reason is because the love of God is one of its key themes (this is true of much of his writings). Here is one example:
- “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love…So we have come to know and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1John 4.7-8, 16).
Clearly, God is defined as love. That love of God was made known through the giving of the One and Only Son, Jesus. When these statements are read, they are intended to be read in context. John has in mind a specific people that the love of God was made manifest. Those people are defined in the gospel.
Jesus came to “save His people from their sins” (Matt 1.21). He purposefully laid down His life for those people, referring to them as sheep (John 10.11, 15). He also makes a distinction between those who are His and those who are not. His people hear His voice and listen to Him (John 10.3, 16, 26), but those who are not His follow the will of another (John 10.27; cf. v.5). Jesus specifically prays for those who are His (to those He freely gives His love), but He refuses to pray for those who are not His own (John 17.9).
We ought not look at the love of God as if it is indiscriminate. God’s love is unconditional for His people, not for the whole world—i.e. every person on the planet; past, present and future. This is not a teaching limited to the New Testament, but red letter “Christians” fail to see or comprehend this.
It is true that God loves even His enemies. He gives to them wealth, time and power. When they need bread, He doesn’t give them a stone (Matt 7.9). Even the devil and his demons enjoy what I can only assume one might call the general love of God. He is kind to them, when He need not be. But they can never receive His special love. This is reserved for God’s people; the elect.
Does God desire all people to be saved? Does He draw all people to Himself? Have you not read:
- “For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth” (Deut 7.6; repeated 10.14-15; 14.2)
Why, would God pick some people to be His but not All people? That doesn’t seem fair! Because…
- “It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers…” (Deut 7.7-8a; emphasis added).
- “Behold, to the LORD your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it. Yet the LORD set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day” (Deut 10.14-15; italics added).
God chose them, because He chose to love them. If He chose to love them, and chose them, then it follows that He did not love the rest of the world in the same capacity. Nor should we conclude that this love God displayed was meant for every person in Israel; at the time of the Exodus, through the period of Judges, or the time of the Kings, or the diaspora, or in the 1st century under John the Baptist and Jesus’ ministry, or the subsequent ministry of the apostles.
Within Israel the nation, there was a nation[iii] that was truly devoted to God. A number that God had preserved despite the covenantal unfaithfulness of the rest (1Kgs 19.18). These are referred to the remnant. It is the remnant that God showed special love to, not the entire nation (Isa 10.20-22; Rom 11.4-5). And not even those limited to the physical descendants of Abraham, for the true offspring of Abraham have always been through the child of promise (Rom 9.7-8).
God is not joyful over the death of the Wicked = God desires All people to be Saved
The Word of God, spoken by the prophet Ezekiel during the time of Babylonian conquest against the southern kingdom of Judah; including the destruction of Jerusalem and the robbing and burning of the temple:
- “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?” (Ezek 18.23; 32; 33.11).
The context is a whining group of sinners complaining that their punishment is too great to bear. They claim they are suffering for their father’s sins (previous generation) and not their own. They’ve been given sour grapes to gnash their teeth upon. God’s point, however, is that every person is held accountable for their own course of action. They are responsible for their own behavior.
The conditional statements of “If, then” do not speak of ability, but categorical facts of reality. Unfortunately, this is a common error in reasoning. What such statements conclude is the result is conclusion of the condition met. For example: A person who does not commit murder will not be found guilty of murder. A person who does murder, will be found guilty of murder. Etc., etc., etc.
The people accused God of injustice, but He points out that they are the ones who are really unjust. It is not as if God is rubbing His hands together in gleeful anticipation of killing the sinners. He does not find joy in their sin. Nor is He jumping up and down with laughter at their being found guilty.
Doesn’t this mean that God desires all people to be saved? To turn and repent? Depends on the meaning of “desire.” There are distinctions in God’s desire, just as there are in His love and goodness.
Does God desire for mankind to worship other gods, to craft idols and blaspheme His good Name? No. This is an example of God’s prescriptive will. He has an objective standard that image bearers were created to obey. To obey pleases God (cf. Heb 11.6; James 2.26). For example,
- “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17.30).
God is not happy about His creature’s disobedience. In this sense then, God does not desire to see the death of the wicked which such behavior guarantees. However, there are times when God’s desire of purpose (His decreed will) determines the outcome through the sinful choices of fallen creatures.
No one made Joseph’s brothers hate him and sell him into slavery. They chose to do it. And yet, we read that God decreed it to take place:
- “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Gen 50.20).
Oddly familiar when you compare it with the following:
- “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men…Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified…For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2.23, 36, 39; italics added).
On the one hand sinful man rebelled against what God desired (the keeping of His Holy Commands), but on the other hand man’s rebellion fulfilled what God desired (keeping His decreed plan), fulfilling the words of the prophets (cf. Acts 3.18; 13.27, comp Isa 46.10).
To argue from passages like Acts 17:30 that God desires all people to be saved is in contradiction with what God says in other places. It is out of line with His Godly nature as the Bible reveals. And it offers a disproportionate view of God.
In short, they assume that God loves without distinction all creatures equally. That His goodness limits Him to a human understanding of what is good. His lack of joy from sinners perishing equates to a universal desire for all men everywhere to turn to Him. And from such assumptions it is concluded: God’s love is unconditional, His goodness prevents Him from doing anything conceived as “bad” from a human point of view, and His desire for humans to repent is comparable to one who hopes and wishes and longs for people to come to Him, but He is left to the whims of the creature whether or not that outcome will ever present itself.
The end result being, the creature has fashioned God into his/her own image. Or, rather the image that they prefer God to be. The root of such thinking is in assuming that the Potter is like the clay.
[i] All Scripture unless otherwise noted shall be of the English Standard Version.
[ii] As may be seen in this link, John Piper gives a heartfelt answer that admits his own struggles with what to do with these prayers (see here). They are difficult because they attack our sensibilities, but we should be reminded that they are God-breathed prayers (2Tim 3.16-17), and are therefore good for the believer. Unless of course you’d like to assume that you are more righteous than a prophet of God under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Wisdom, however, will dictate the circumstance where/when such prayers are worthy.
[iii] To avoid confusion, the English word “nation” is not limited in the sense of a country with borders, for the term can also refer to a body or group of people within a whole.