Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on 10/29/2000
Today we take up the digression on theology which flows from Paul's discussion of the priority and scope of prayer in 1 Tim. 2. Our voyage will require us to cross some deep waters. The trip will not be easy or safe, and it may not be entirely pleasant; we must cling to Scripture as our anchor. And please listen closely: if you hear just one part abstracted from the whole, it may sound--and indeed be--very wrong.
God's desires are not simple, and they are not exhausted by this verse, which gives us that part relevant to this context: we are to pray for all men because God desires them all to be saved and come to the knowledge of the Truth. But God also desires other things, which may at first glance seem in conflict with this.
If God purposes, wills, plans, and intends to do a thing, it must be a good thing, the right thing to do. God as good must desire what is good and right. We have no problem seeing this with His desire for universal salvation. But what of Prvb. 16:4 or Heb. 10:26-31? There is a sense in which God desires that sin be punished. In so far as sin exists, given that sin exists, God wants it to be judged, to receive the response it deserves; and He therefore plans to judge it. This is just as much in accordance with His nature as the desire to save, and it is (in absolute terms) just as good a thing, though it does not as readily seem so to us.
God also intends, wills, and plans to save some people from this judgment--some, but not all. His desire to judge sin is fulfilled by the Atonement: Christ dies as a substitute, so that the sins of Believers are punished in Him rather than in them. As Christ said in Mark 10:45 (and Paul echoes in v. 5 here), He came to give His life as a ransom for many. But God did not design this atonement to save everybody. (The atonement would be rather a failure if He had!) In John 3:16, He loved the world so much that He sent His Son to save, not everybody, but Believers. God does not purpose, plan, or will to save unbelievers; He has no intention of doing so. Though the atonement is sufficient for all, it was not designed to save anybody but Believers. God did not send His Son to save all and fail; He sent Him to save whosoever would believe, and succeeded royally.
Yet God, according to our text, desires all men to be saved. What can this mean in the light of the fact that He has not in fact willed to save all? Two verses from the Old Testament create an interesting contrast which might help us to see the answer. Ps. 116:5 says, "Precious in the sight of God is the death of His godly ones." Why? Because it brings them to Him forever. Ezekiel 33:11 says, "The Lord takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked." Why? Because it separates them from Him in Hell forever. He wills both deaths, but has a different attitude toward them. In other words, while He wills both the death of the wicked and the eternal life of the righteous, He does not will them in the same way, taking no pleasure in the one and delighting in the other. They are not the same to Him.
In the same way, when my children were small, I desired that when they did wrong they would get caught and punished. I also desired that when they did well they would be recognized and praised. I wanted both things to happen, but I took great pleasure in the one and none in the other. And I wanted one only in so far as wrongdoing made it necessary, while I wanted the other simply and absolutely. Yet you could say they were both my will. In like manner, there is no contradiction when Scripture says that God desires that all men should be saved and says also that He only plans to save Believers. He prefers saving to damning, but is fully prepared to do both.
This means that God does not get everything He wants. I.e., He does not will everything He desires. If you think that is an easy statement to make, you do not understand God at all. He is the Lord God, who existed in total self-sufficiency before creation, who was under no compulsion to create anything, who designed everything that He did create and knows it completely, and who is still in complete control He is sovereign. If He chose to have perfect obedience from you, He could have it--now! If He chose to immediately impose perfect obediance on you, you could not resist. You would have no choice. Which is precisely the point.
Why doesn't God impose perfect obediance? He has a right to it; He has the ability; not doing so permits all the evil which afflicts the world He loves to continue. There is only one answer: God chooses not to have everything He wants for the sake of one thing He wants even more. He thinks it worth all the suffering of human history--no, that is too little; He thinks is worth the suffering of Christ on the Cross--for one of us to respond to Him freely as a Person. Some of us remember a guy named Matt Preston. When his computer boots up, it greets him by saying, in a fine Darth Vadar voice, "What is thy bidding, Lord Preston?" I could (with a little help) get my computer to do that too. But it would be a purely mechanical response--not terribly satisfying. God is not satisfied with that kind of response from us. Which means that from some of us, He gets something much better. The great mystery of the nature of God--that an absolutely sovereign Being does not get everything He desires--leads also to the great mystery of Man. We would be as incapable as the computer of generating the response of real love and worship on our own. It is all His programming, but He programs something that transcends mere programming. That is what it means to be created--and re-created--in His image.
If you are not a Christian, realize that God would prefer not to send you to Hell. He takes no pleasure in the prospect. But He is fully prepared to do it, determined to do it, committed to doing it, unless you accept Christ as Lord and Savior. Do not think that God's desire that all men be saved means that you can let slide the question of whether Christ is Lord. It means precisely the opposite: that salvation has been provided at infinte cost for all those--and only those--who believe.
The primary application of this theology in context is for Christians praying for the salvation of a loved one. We are supposed to pray for all men because God desires all men to be saved. It is not a promise, for not all men are going to be saved, but it is an encouragement. It gives you the assurance that God is favorably disposed to that prayer, that He is pleased by it, that you can believe that you and the Father are working together toward its answer. "Can anything be done for Edmund," asks Lucy in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. "All shall be done," Aslan replies. Therefore, continue praying for that person. Pray that the Lord will make you a clear window for the love of Christ to shine through, and that He will give you opportunities for the shining. Wait, and leave it in His hands, knowing that God desires all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the Truth.
How much does God desire men to be saved? The answer to that question is the Cross of Christ. Can we who are His people desire any less? Let us therefore deny ourselves, take up our crosses daily, and follow Him.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams