Well Roasted Marshmallows
One of the single most shocking truths not proclaimed in the anemic Evangelical world today, which includes the swampy backwaters of today’s Evangelicalism, sometimes called the Reformed world, is that God doesn’t love everyone nor does He want all men to be saved. It was certainly shocking to me to realize over two decades ago, and despite all that I have been told to the contrary, that the Scriptures do not teach God’s universal love for all mankind and that what I was taught in the pew and by my spiritual elders at the time was a lie.
When I was first confronted by the doctrine of God’s sovereign predestination and election, and started to understand why person A was a believer and why person B was not, it presented the first real crisis of my faith. At that point I had been a professing Christian for more than ten years and I thought I had Christianity pretty much figured out. I was wrong. I came to realize that salvation was not due to the exercise of my own free and independent will but God’s. I was really unprepared to deal with this particular truth and this was despite having previously devoured everything written by the late Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer. That’s not to say that Schaeffer didn’t provide an oasis to a thinking Christian in a world filled with an endless stream of pompadour haired televangelists hawking Jesus like carny barkers, “precious moments” figurines, and Donny and Marie wannabes crooning for Christ. Schaeffer was a Presbyterian and deeply rooted in the faith of the Reformers; the very men who took on the awesome power of papal Rome and won. Yet, even this didn’t prepare me for the truths that were right under my nose. Truths like:
But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:12,13)
And, of course,
For by grace are you saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God. Not of works, lest any man should boast. (Ephesians 2:8,9)
Thankfully, my first real introduction to the doctrine of predestination and election was through Gordon Clark and his book simply titled, Predestination. After that I plowed through books on the subject by Boettner, Luther, Pink, Zanchius, along with Calvin’s Institutes (twice) among others. I was struck that the faith of the Reformers was a qualitatively different religion than the one I had been taught. I had thought of myself as a “Protestant” for over a decade, longer if only nominally, but I really had no idea how alien my Christian faith was to the faith of the original Protestants. However, if I could be so wrong, and even ignorant, about such pivotal Christian doctrines as predestination and election, and for so long, then perhaps those in the Reformed tradition were wrong too and Christianity is a farce. I was determined that if the pieces did not fit in this new system I was now discovering, I was willing to toss my bible in the fireplace.
While my crisis continued, things improved when I first joined the Presbyterian Church in America (at the time considered the “conservative” wing of the Presbyterian church) and my new pastor was working his way through Paul’s letter to the Romans. For a guy trying to make sense of predestination what a perfect opportunity to continue to try and make sense of it all. Looking back that may have been the last time I’ve heard any in depth sermons concerning the awesome and terrifying subject of God’s predestination over all things including the salvation of a particular people chosen by God; the elect.
Unfortunately most of what is taught in Reformed churches today is indistinguishable from the pabulum fed to countless Christians thanks in large part to the late John Murray, who, along with Cornelius Van Til, launched a vicious attack against Gordon Clark in the 1940’s that included a defense of the implicit Arminianism of the so-called “free,” “sincere” or “well-meant offer” of the Gospel. Murray’s notable contribution to the Clark controversy was to pen the majority paper adopted by the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. In that paper Murray asserts:
… God himself expresses an ardent desire for the fulfillment of certain things which he has not decreed in his inscrutable counsel to come to pass. This means that there is a will to the realization of what he has not decretively willed, a pleasure towards that which he has not been pleased to decree. This is indeed mysterious …
The “well meant offer” is a doctrine that amounts to saying that God, who alone has the power to save hell bound sinners, desires the salvation of those He has no intention of saving. And, if you hold to the idea that A is A and not Non-A and that the laws of logic are the very architecture of God’s mind and in whose image we are made, you might be tempted to ask: How can God, who alone has the power to save sinners from their bondage to sin and death, desire to save those He chooses to pass by and leave in their sins? After all, doesn’t God say through his prophet Isaiah:
Declaring the end from the beginning And from ancient times things which have not been done, Saying, ‘My purpose will be established, And I will accomplish all My good pleasure’….
Therefore, if God does all his good pleasure, and his good pleasure is that all should be saved, then it follows necessarily that all will be saved. Either that or God isn’t God. The doctrine of the “well meant offer,” if true, would mean that God is at cross purposes with Himself, which is impious to consider.
Consider the following from John Calvin’s answer to Roman Catholic apologist Albert Pighius:
…Pighius, like a wild beast escaped from his cage, rushes forth, bounding over all fences in his way, uttering such sentiments as these:
“The mercy of God is extended to every one, for God wishes all men to be saved; and for that end He stands and knocks at the door of our heart, desiring to enter Therefore, those were elected before the foundation of the world, by whom He foreknew He should be received. But God hardens no one, excepting by His forbearance, in the same manner as too fond parents ruin their children by excessive indulgence.”
Just as if anyone, by such puerile dreams as these, could escape the force of all those things which the apostle plainly declares in direct contradiction to such sentiments! And just as if it were nothing at all to his readers, when Paul positively asserts that, out of the twins, while they were yet in the womb of their mother, the one was chosen and the other rejected!and that, too, without any respect to the works of either, present or future (of the former of which there could be none), but solely by the good pleasure of God that calleth! As if it were nothing, when the apostle testifies that “it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy,” who hardeneth whom He will, and hath mercy on whom He will! As if it were nothing when the same apostle avers, “that God sheweth forth His power in the vessels of wrath,“in order that He might make known the riches of His grace on the vessels of mercy“! Paul undeniably here testifies that all those of Israel who were saved were saved according to God’s free election; and that, therefore, “the election obtained it, and the rest were blinded” (Rom. xi. 7). All these solemn particulars, however, we have more fully discussed in their order in our preceding pages. (A Treatise on Eternal Predestination, 152-153).
God desires to save those He saves and doesn’t desire to save those He doesn’t. Calvin’s response to Pighius is biblical, unapologetic, and without the slightest hint of contradiction. On the other hand, the “well meant offer” is clearly contradictory and that’s the point. The pieces of the puzzle aren’t supposed to fit and embracing contradictions is essential to Van Til’s system and was the central feature underlying his entire complaint against Clark. To suggest that the truths of Scripture do not violate the laws of logic, or simply the laws of God’s own thinking, is, according to Van Til and his followers, “rationalism.” Van Til writing in The Complaint:
Berkhof in his Systematic Theology, pp. 460ff., upholds both the universality and the sincerity of the gospel invitation. He says:
“It is not confined to any age or nation or class of men. It comes to both the just and the unjust, the elect and the reprobate.”
He offers as irrefutable proof Isaiah 45:22, “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is none else”. He proceeds:
“The external calling is a calling in good faith, a calling that is seriously meant. It is not an invitation coupled with the hope that it will not be accepted. When God calls the sinner to accept Christ by faith He earnestly desires this; and when He promises those who repent and believe eternal life, His promise is dependable. This follows from the very nature, from the veracity, of God. It is blasphemous to think that God would be guilty of equivocation and deception, that He would say one thing and mean another, that He would earnestly plead with the sinner to repent and believe unto salvation, and at the same time not desire it in any sense of the word.”
And when faced with the objection that according to this doctrine God offers the forgiveness of sins and eternal life to those for whom he has not intended these gifts, Berkhof admits frankly that there is “a real difficulty” at this point, but insists that it may not be assumed that there is a contradiction.
Incidentally it maybe remarked here that when, in 1924*, one of the very few churches in this country which takes the Reformed faith seriously deposed certain ministers of the gospel, one ground, among others, for this action was the denial by these ministers of the sincerity of the divine offer of salvation to all men.
The supreme importance for evangelism of maintaining the Reformed doctrine of the gospel as a universal and sincere offer of salvation is self evident.
Again we are confronted by a situation which is inadequately described as amazing. Once more there is a problem which has left the greatest theologians of history baffled. The very Word of God does not present a solution. But Dr. Clark asserts unblushingly that for his thinking the difficulty is non-existent (35:20-36:2; 47:1f.). Here is something phenomenal. What accounts for it? The most charitable, and no doubt the correct, explanation is that Dr. Clark has fallen under the spell of rationalism. Rather than subject his reason to the divine Word he insists on logically harmonizing with each other two evident but seemingly contradictory teachings of that Word, although in the process he detracts from one of these teachings.
The conclusion is inescapable that Dr. Clark’s rationalism has resulted in his obscuring—to say the very least—a significant teaching of Scripture—a truth which constitutes one off the most glorious aspects of the gospel of the grace of God.
Let that all sink in for a moment. Clark’s “rationalism” is that he had no problem squaring God’s sovereignty in election with reprobation. Clark’s “sin” is that he logically harmonized the teaching of Scripture regarding the general or universal call of the Gospel with the doctrine of reprobation. Van Til admits that the WMO presents to the mind “two evident but seemingly contradictory teachings of [God’s] Word,” but it is “rationalism” to harmonize seeming contradictions in Scripture. The problem is the word “seemingly” can only successfully modify “contradictory” if and only if what appears to be contradictory can be shown to be no contradiction at all. Simply asserting, as Berkhof has done, “that it may not be assumed that there is a contradiction” is not an argument. Further, asserting that there are no contradictions for God doesn’t eliminate, much less soften, the admission that God’s Word is contradictory to the minds of men. What really irked Van Til was that what remains a “real difficulty” for Berkhof turns out to be no problem for Clark. The question is; why? So here is Clark’s reply to Van Til in The Answer (be sure to catch some of Clark’s famously understated humor in his reply):
The last theological section of the Complaint treats of the offer of the gospel. Since the answer to the Complain is already so voluminous, brevity at the end might be appreciated. And brevity will be sufficient, for once again the basic accusation is rationalism, and this accusation has already been refuted.
Once again also the complainants show their unwillingness to be satisfied with the wording of the Westminster Confession. In the first section of the Complaint they were not satisfied with the statement of the Confession on the incomprehensibility of God, but wished to impose on it a strange mystical irrationalism; in the second section they were unwilling to be satisfied with the Westminster doctrine which excludes passions from God’s consciousness: admitting that Dr. Clark’s view is correct, nevertheless they attack it; in the third section the complainants show themselves dissatisfied with the Confession’s encouragement of a logical or rational approach to Scripture: here again the complainants take a position that reduces to irrationalism; and now in the last section they ignore the Confession, and appeal to an earlier and inferior creed.
The Church should note that Dr. Clark is in full accord with the Westminster Confession on the offer of the gospel. The Confession VII, iii, states: “Man, by his fall, having made himself incapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the covenant of grace: wherein he freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in him, that they may be saved; and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto life, his Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe.” With this Dr. Clark is in full accord. The complainants, however, were not satisfied with Dr. Clark’s acceptance of the Confession’s statement, but insisted on the word sincere in describing the offer of the gospel.
Now as the Complaint (P. 13, 1; O. 51) admits, the word “sincere” is of little significance in any particular phrase because God is sincere in everything he does. There was no need of the Westminster divines’ using it; and there was no need of the complainants using it. It is superfluous. This was one of two reasons for Dr. Clark’s reluctance to use the term. It has been made clear how necessary it is to define terms accurately. The qualitative difference between the truth of a proposition for man and the same truth for God remains undefined in the Complaint. The word “emotion” is defined carelessly. In this case also Dr. Clark could not know what meaning was to be placed on the word “sincere.” And for this reason he refused to use it. The second reason is closely allied with the first. Because the word “sincere” is of such general application and can be used with various connotations, the Arminians have used it to distinguish their doctrine from ours. The Lutherans do the same thing with the word “earnestly.” According to W. G. Polack, in The Building of a Great Church, page 151, the Missouri Synod in 1881 adopted the following point among others: “We believe, teach, and confess that God has loved the world from eternity, has created all men for salvation and none for damnation, and earnestly desires the salvation of all men.”
These then are the words used by the enemies of Calvinism to make it appear odious. Dr. Clark’s refusal to use such words springs from his desire not to be charged with Arminianism. He seems to have been successful, for Arminianism is one accusation the complainants do not make.
The Church would do well to compare the careless questions of the complainants in examining Dr. Clark and their careless language in the Complaint with the excellent precision of a careful theologian like R. L. Dabney. In his Syllabus and Notes (p. 559), he says:
“Fifth: When we assert this sincere compassion of God in His common calls to the non-elect, we do not attribute to Him anything futile, or insincere; because, in the expressed condition: that they shall turn. He does not say anywhere, that He has any desire to see anyone saved while continuing a rebel. Nor does He say anywhere, that it is His unconditioned purpose to compel all to turn. But He says, He would like to see all saved provided they all turned. So that His will in the universal call is not out of harmony with His prescience. And last: God’s invitations and warnings to those, who, He foresees, will reject them, are the necessary expressions of His perfections. The circumstance that a given sin is foreseen does not rob it of its moral character; and hence should constitute no reason why a righteous God shall forebear to prohibit and warn against it. That God shall yet permit creatures to commit this sin against His invitations is, therefore, just the old question about the permission of evil. Not a new one.”
Though the complainants might reproach Dabney for trying to answer questions and solve paradoxes instead of letting things stand without explanation, Dabney’s statement is the kind of careful wording that is to be approved; This is the form of doctrine that Dr. Clark accepts; and this is sufficient.
Thankfully, had my initial introduction to the Reformed faith and the doctrines of predestination and election come from Van Til and his associates, rather than from Gordon Clark, John Calvin and others, I might have been using my Bible to roast marshmallows.