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God's Thwarted Desire?

By Rev. James Gracie

This Editorial was published in the Presbyterian Standard, Issue No. 29, January-March 2003.

HAS GOD a desire for the salvation of all men? The question is not whether all men will be saved - no reformed theologian believes this - but is there a literal desire within God that would have all men to be saved? Many believe that such a desire is the historic reformed view and that to believe otherwise is unorthodox; indeed, it is claimed that one cannot preach the Gospel unless one holds to what is called the 'well-meant' offer of the Gospel. But is this the historic reformed view?

Rev. John Kennedy

In the 19th century, the Free Church of Scotland was in the vanguard of Reformed theology. The Rev. John Kennedy's book Man's Relations to God was a product of the era. Kennedy's book is very clear: "How sad it is to hear men, sworn to Calvinism, declare that without this theft from the Arminian stores they could not preach the gospel at all! Do they believe…that they are commanded to preach 'the gospel of God concerning His Son Jesus Christ' to every creature? If so, what can they desiderate in order that they may say to every sinner to whom they preach 'Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved'? This is the Scripture version of the gospel call....The idea of the call being the offer of a gift has driven the scriptural form of it out of the minds of many men altogether....Extending the idea of the Marrow-men's 'deed of gift and grant,' they reached at last the universal reference of the atonement....A reference that avails for no definite end; that secures no redemption; and that leaves those whom it connects with the death of Christ to perish in their sins."

It is obvious that for Dr. Kennedy, a universal reference of the Gospel - implying as it does a thwarted desire on the part of God - is unacceptable. Interestingly, Kennedy was accused in his day of not preaching the offer of the Gospel. However, Principal John Macleod (1872-1948), described in the Dictionary of Scottish Church History as one who "acquired a unique position of affection and respect in the international Reformed world, both for his profound knowledge of Reformed theology and his personal godliness" refutes this accusation. He writes: "This charge was without a foundation, for no man in his generation made conscience more than he did of proclaiming as the Gospel a message that was as full as it was free and as free as it was full." Principal Macleod described Kennedy as "the great preacher of his generation...he was a truly great divine." But were Dr. Kennedy's views unique?

The Free Church of Scotland

The proposed union between the Free Church of Scotland and the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland in the 19th century caused division. One issue of contention was the 'double reference' theory of the Atonement. Expounded by Professors Brown and Balmer of the United Secession Church, it on the one hand affirmed particular Atonement for the elect, but on the other hand opened the door of mercy to sinners without distinction, i.e., it brought man indiscriminately into 'a salvable state'. The Free Church rejected such unsound theology.

Principal Macleod comments: "It meant a new approach to the case of the anxious sinner....it taught...a Redemption that did not secure life....[it] played with the use of deceitful terms, and did not compare well with the method that had been formerly in use. This older method told the sinner of a Saviour Who had died to save His chosen and called ones, and Who was now calling and inviting him to make proof of His saving power by taking Himself as the Lord his Righteousness....The older Calvinism did not seek to assure the sinner that Christ had died his death until he had first, in the obedience of faith, closed with Him as a Saviour in His office as Mediator." John Macleod concludes, "assurance is fatally undermined by the notion that there is a changeable or ineffectual purpose of God…"

Professor James Macgregor (1830-1894), a devoted student of Principal William Cunningham, wrote a pamphlet opposing the Theory (which he saw as an echo of Amyraldianism). In this publication he states the following: "The more malignant aspects of Amyraldianism are as follows:- First, the notion of any saving purpose of God that does not infallibly determine salvation; or, in other words, of a frustrated intention or disappointed desire of His; this notion is not only on the face of it unscriptural, but, in the heart of it, offensive even to our natural reason, because inconsistent with the very nature and perfections of Deity. Nor does the notion gain anything, in respect of spiritual seemliness, when transferred from God's eternal decree to the execution of that decree in time on the Cross."

It is therefore evident that the Free Church of the 19th century had no room in its theology for a frustrated desire within God. (To postulate the notion that there is a literal desire which does not come to pass but which, at the same time, is not frustrated is simple absurdity and not worthy of serious consideration.) The question then remains – at whose feet did these men acquire their theology?

William Cunningham was the most eminent of all the theologians of the day. His Historical Theology sets out historical Calvinism in its most mature utterances. Its theology is, as Principal John Macleod informs us, "that set forth, analysed and defended in the Theologia Elenchtica of Francis Turrretin." Did Francis Turretin believe in contradictory desires within God?

Francis Turretin

Francis Turretin (1623-1687) has been called "the best expounder of the doctrine of the Reformed Church." His Institutio Theologicae Elencticae, first published in 1679-85, was not only devoured by Scottish theologians such as William Cunningham and Hugh Martin, but Charles Hodge and Robert L. Dabney assigned the Institutes to their students. Within it one finds ample material to justify the preaching of the Gospel to every creature, to justify exhorting every sinner to come to Christ (for the simple reason that not to do so means eternal damnation), but nothing to warrant the assertion that such preaching is based upon a desire within God for the salvation of all men, i.e. no 'well-meant' offer.

Turretin recognises two wills in God: the decretive will whereby He decrees all that will come to pass, and the will of precept whereby He prescribes to man his duty. However, he rejects any suggestion that these two wills contradict each other. "Therefore God can (without a contradiction) will as to precept what he does not will as to decree...although these wills may be conceived by us as diverse (owing to the diversity of the objects), yet they are not contrary...the decree of God does not contend with his command when he prescribes to man his bounden duty." He goes even further when he says, "...who would dare to attribute such wills to a man of sound mind, as to say that he willed seriously and ardently what he knew never could happen, and indeed what would not happen because he nilled to effect it, on whom alone the effect depends...the fraud would easily be detected...an empty and void desire incapable of accomplishment cannot apply to God...he who seriously intends anything uses all the means in his power to accomplish it."

We believe, therefore, that in the preaching of the gospel there is a declaration of that of which God approves, not a declaration of that which God desires. Turretin states: "For the approbation of anything is not forthwith his volition, nor if I approve a thing, should I therefore immediately will it." Thus, when the Gospel is preached there is no falsehood involved; no deceitful notion of God desiring something which He either cannot - or will not - bring to pass. True preaching sincerely declares man's duty to believe in Christ, the promises attached to such belief, and the consequences of unbelief.

This preaching is to be to all men, not because of a notional desire in God, but because of the explicit command of God, "Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature." (Mark 16:15). William Cunningham agrees. He states, "The sole ground or warrant for men's act in offering pardon and salvation to their fellow men, is the authority and command of God in His Word. We have no other warrant than this; we need no other; and we should seek or desire none; but on this ground alone should consider ourselves not only warranted, but bound to proclaim to our fellow men...the good news of the kingdom, and to call upon them to come to Christ that they may be saved." Cunningham makes no mention of an unfulfilled desire within God being the basis of the gospel call: indeed, his statement implicitly denies the 'well-meant' offer.

It is noteworthy that whatever will of God Turretin refers to (decretive or prescriptive) he never actually refers to what God 'wants' but always refers to that which God 'wills'. Why is this? Surely because to speak of what God 'wants' is to assume divine passibility. This notion is not only unused by Turretin, it is condemned by the Westminster Confession of Faith: "There is but one only living and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions…" (W.C.F. Ch. 2.1).

Divine Impassibility

As far back as the early Church fathers, the notion of the passibility of God was rejected. For example, the Ignatian Epistles written by Ignatius of Antioch (c.35-107 A.D.) speaks of Christ being impassible in His Divine nature, and passible in His human nature (Letter to Ephesians VII). Does God then have feelings? Our answer is unequivocal - NO!

Passions imply a lack of knowledge, a lack of power, or both. Man reacts to circumstances in a passionate way simply because he is confronted with situations that are unforeseen or uncontrollable. This cannot be the case with God. While feelings were aroused at the shooting of young schoolchildren in Dunblane, there was no 'shudder' in God. There was no 'shudder' in God when Christ was crucified: "Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God..." What is true concerning Dunblane and Christ, is equally true concerning the predestination of some unto everlasting life, and the foreordination of others to everlasting death.

But does the Lord Jesus Christ in our nature sincerely and passionately will something for the reprobate that God the Father does not? Christ says, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem...how often would I have gathered thy children together...and ye would not!" (Matt.23:37). Is Christ lamenting His inability to fulfil what He sincerely desires, or is He desiring something His Father does not? Is He frustrated by the opposition of the Pharisees?

Turretin deals with this text: "It is not said that God willed to scatter those whom he willed to gather together, but only that Christ willed to gather together those whom Jerusalem (i.e. the chiefs of the people) nilled to be gathered together, but notwithstanding their opposition Christ did not fail in gathering together those whom he willed." Augustine similarly states: "She indeed was unwilling that her sons should be gathered together by him, but notwithstanding her unwillingness he gathered together his sons whom he willed" (Enchiridion 24[97] FC 2:450; PL 40:277). Christ does not say that He would gather 'Jerusalem' but rather 'the children of Jerusalem'. This distinction is often simply ignored to facilitate a false interpretation of the passage. However, while Jerusalem represents the scribes and Pharisees, her children are those whom Christ gathers into the Kingdom. This is obvious from verse 13 of the same chapter, where Christ states; "...for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in."


Scripture does not say that God loves, but that God is Love. Such an attribute of love is not determined by feelings. It is perfect love, fully exercised one hundred percent of the time toward His people. Contrary to what is asserted by some, the so-called 'well-meant' offer is not reformed theology; reformed theology recognises no thwarted desire in God. God is perfectly blessed in himself: His will is one.