Followup: “I Pray Not For The World”

This is a followup question to a post in early 2008 called “I Pray Not For The World”

Dear Reggie,

I’m really sorry if I missed something on the site but I can’t find anything that could reasonably reconcile “I pray not for the world” and “Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth” Tim 2:4?

Dear Niki,

I think the solution to your question lies in the direction of distinguishing between what God desires in His tender affections for all the souls created in His image and what He has willed more ultimately, from the standpoint of His eternal purpose.

I don’t believe we need to see any conflict between God’s desire that all men be saved and His eternal purpose to bring an ordained number to faith (Acts 13:48), as also shown in the case of the “seven thousand’ of the “remnant according to the election of grace” (Ro 11:4-5), or the third part of Israel that are predestined to survive Jacob’s trouble to be born in one day (Isa 66:8; Zech 3:9; 12:10; 13:9). While there is a sense in which God desires all to come to the knowledge of the truth; it is just as clear that He has not chosen all (Ro 9:11, 23; Eph 1:4; 2Thes 2:13).

Regardless of how such divine selectivity is explained, one thing is certain: It is everywhere to be seen. It is these foreknown ones that Jesus prays for in a way that does not extend to all the world – “all men.” It is not that Christ is any the less feeling in His love for the rest of humanity, particularly the fallen nation of Israel (“Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often would I have gathered you …”). It is simply that the world does not belong to Him in this unique sense. Only those that the Father has ‘pre-given’ and effectually drawn to Jesus are entrusted to Him in this way, which explains the specificity or exclusivity of His prayer (Jn 6:37, 39, 44, 65; 17:9, 11-12, 20, 24; Ro 8:27; Heb 7:25).

To ordain some to life on the basis of sovereign grace does not need to mean that the rest were ordained to sin, although God has ordained the just damnation of all that persist in sin. In one sense, it is the perfection of His plan (Prov 16:4), but in another sense, the damnation of the lost breaks His heart (Isa 48:18; Mt 23:37). Only in the case of His elect do His tender affections meet with His eternal purpose in Christ.

Although the loss of any soul is a great suffering to God, His eternal purpose in Christ is built around His decision to permit sin to be its own reward when the need of grace is neither felt nor sought. However, scripture also shows that to even desire the Lord is not a natural inclination (Ro 3:11; 8:7; 1Cor 2:14), but the result of the Spirit’s work (Mt 11:27; Jn 3:6; 6:44, 63; Eph 2:1).

The decision to permit sin to enter the world with all the tragedy and destruction it would necessarily bring was always inherent in God’s eternal purpose (Mt 25:34; Jn 17:24; Acts 15:18; Ro 9:23; Eph 3:9, 11; Rev 13:18). The presence of rebellion gives opportunity for the revelation of divine justice, which is the necessary background to the revelation of the glory of grace. Ro 8:20 makes clear that it was God’s eternal purpose in Christ that moved Him to create a world that He knew would lapse into futility.

This is all to say that God’s decision to save an election of grace through Christ was not made after the fall, nor because of the fall; it existed in God before the creation of the first angel. His pre-temporal purpose in Christ was always His highest pleasure and the principal reason for the creation of all other things (Rev 4:11).

Not only does divine election precede creation, it exists before the possibility of any moral choice (“for the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil”). Paul shows that it must be so, precisely “in order that the purpose of God according to election might stand; not of works but of Him that calls” (Ro 9:11). God has spared no expense to demonstrate that His decision in grace exists in complete independence of human merit (Ro 4:6), to the end that no flesh might glory (Ro 4:2; 1Cor 1:29; 4:7; Eph 2:9). This is the consummate offense to humanism, since nothing ‘in man’, ‘of man’, or proceeding ‘from man’ can bias God’s decision (Ro 11:35-36).

The sovereignty of God’s choice takes nothing away from His just, merciful, and long suffering dealings with the world (Mt 5:45; Ro 2:4; 9:22; 1Pet 3:20). I have never understood why it must be assumed that because He has chosen some from the beginning on the basis of grace alone (Ro 9:23; Eph 1:4-6; 2Thes 2:13) that this should mean that God is somehow the author or cause of the damnation of all others. In logic, that is called a ‘non sequitur’ (does not necessarily follow).

God’s just dealings with the world are clearly not the same as His ‘especially’ gracious dealings with His own. Paul says “the foundation of God stands sure, having this seal: the Lord knows them that are His” (2Tim 2:19). They bear His image and share His nature. He knew them and predestined them before He called and justified them (Ro 8:29-30). It is specifically for these chosen ones (Jn 15:16) that Jesus will lift His sovereign, almighty, always effectual, and unfailing prayer, simply because they are specially entrusted to His everlasting keeping (Jn 6:39). We know that God claims rights to His own that He does not have towards the world? (Isa 63:19; Amos 3:2).

This glorious truth takes nothing from God’s more general love for the world. He loves all men created in His image and condemns failure to do the same (Mt 5:44-45; Jam 3:9). His compelling and manifest goodness leaves all without excuse (Ro 2:4). But it is also true that He did not send Christ into the world with any suspense concerning the success of His mission. No, the God of unlimited foreknowledge came most particularly for the sheep that would hear His voice.

Atonement would be made available to all, and invitation extended to all, but God well knew that only the sheep would benefit. That is why Spurgeon would say that while the atonement is certainly ‘efficient’ for the elect; it is no less ‘sufficient’ for all. In contrast to some forms of Calvinism, we may be sure that none will ever be able to plead in that day that nothing was provided for their salvation. No, damnation’s greatest anguish will subsist most particularly in the fact that so much was provided and made freely available to whosoever will.

However we understand the nature and limits of human freedom, scripture provides many examples of God’s overruling freedom and right to take special measures with some that He does not necessarily take with all. Does special divine action in behalf of some dictate that God is thereby obligated to exert that same measure of divine dealing towards all others?

The special divine arrest of His elect, as in the case of Paul on the road to Damascus, takes nothing from those not so specially chosen according to His purpose. Nor does His choice of some diminish the anguish he feels over the death of the wicked (Ezek 18:32; 33:11; Mt 23:37; Ro 9:2). Much the contrary, in the disposition of His tender affections, He “would have all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.” But who can deny that God has many times over brought special constraints and inducements in the experience of some more than others? Is this unjust? Does special divine action towards one obligate Him to treat all others equally? Is it ‘fair’ for God to seemingly cut off all escape routes for some, while leaving others to pass on in their undisturbed comfort and self-sufficiency?

Certainly no evangelical believer would presume to prescribe what God is free to do or not do, but let us admit that the same objection to God’s freedom to choose one and not another might as well be raised against His right to constrain or influence one more than another. How content will the humanist be with a divine justice that can (with no violation of the will), arrest His chosen servant Paul and speak to him directly (Acts 22:6-7; 14), while the others hear only an uncertain sound? (Acts 22:9) So what if God did choose to choose only some? Would this make Him unjust? Does a lawful and just action of special constraint towards one make God debtor to do the same for all? Even if we disagree with those who affirm that God has done precisely that, on what grounds of justice can we base our protest? This is the complaint that Paul anticipates in Ro 9:19. It is precisely this humanistic claim on grace that stands most in the way of grace (see my paper, “The Key of the Mystery in the Reign of Grace“). It would seem that the entire plan of God is committed to the destruction of this most evil presumption, which lifts itself up in protest against God’s free and just right to have mercy on whom He will have mercy (Jn 5:21; Ro 9:18).

Scripture is filled with many such examples of God’s powerfully ‘crowding’ His elect to the place of free and voluntary choice through the work of the Spirit. He is free and just to appoint and ordain that particular process of divine dealing that is sure to bring down (crucify) self sufficiency (“the pride of your power;” Lev 26:19; Deut 32:36; Dan 12:7). The point is that God is free to discriminate in His dealings with individuals or nations without violation to justice or human freedom, simply because He cannot be under obligation to those that have sold themselves under sin.

Since it cannot be denied that God has so dramatically intervened in the case of some much more than others, it is hard to see how the offense of special election could be much greater. As one brother once quipped: “when Jesus said He “must needs go through Samaria” (Jn 4:4), that is election. And when the Spirit would not permit Paul and his companions to proceed on to Bithynia, but turned them to Macedon instead, that too is election.”

We see this all throughout scripture. It is certainly clear in the case of Paul, but perhaps the greatest example awaits the future salvation of Israel, when the beleaguered remnant has come to the predestined ‘end of their power’ (Deut 32:36; Dan 12:7). This is no violation of the will, but it is certainly an exceptional bending of the will. It is a simple observation of fact that God has not applied such extreme pressure to everyone or every nation.

Future Israel will be living proof of God’s sovereign ability to bring about the necessary repentance and faith of a naturally unwilling people through mighty judgments and powerful constraints. Do such extreme measures nullify or circumvent Israel’s moral responsibility to choose life? Of course not, but it is not far to see that God has certainly ordained the precise conditions that will powerfully incline that nation’s will at the “set time to favor Zion” (Ps 102:13), so that His people are made “willing in the day of His power” (Ps 110:3), and not a moment sooner! (Compare Paul’s view of God’s sovereign timing of his conversion; Gal 1:15-16).

Here, I have suggested that reconciliation between the two passages should be sought in making a distinction between God’s care for all, and His eternal purpose to save only those who believe through grace. Others propose a different solution. They believe that the answer lies in assigning a more hyperbolic sense to the words, “all men.” In this view, it is not ‘all men’ without discrimination, but ‘all men’ in the sense of men of all kinds and stations of life. In this view, whenever the scripture says, “God so loved the world,” Jews are being reminded, and gentiles are being comforted, that the salvation of Christ extends to all nations and not to Israel only (compare Jn 11:52; 1Jn 2:2). Here, the contrast is being made between a narrow Jewish view of God’s love for Israel and the revolutionary new revelation of God’s unexpected intention to open a door of faith to the gentiles (Acts 10:45; 11:18; 14:27; Ro 3:29).

Your brother and friend, Reggie

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