The Will of God and the Gospel Offer: Jonathan Edwards, Charles Hodge and Asahel Nettleton
These passages from classical Reformed theologians and preachers speak of God's desire for or delight in the salvation of those who hear the gospel offer, inasmuch as his revealed will is an expression of his goodness and kindness toward the hearers of the gospel.
Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758):
The sincerity of God's calls and invitations to sinners
(Remarks on Important Theological Controversies, chap. III: "Concerning the Divine Decrees in General, and Election in Particular," from paragraphs 9 and 13, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, ed. Edward Hickman, vol. 2, pp. 527-28)
This is the passage to which Robert Murray M'Cheyne refers in his address, "God in Christ Reconciling the World".
9. When a distinction is made between God's revealed will and his secret will, or his will of command and decree, will is certainly in that distinction taken in two senses. His will of decree, is not his will in the same sense as his will of command is. Therefore, it is no difficulty at all to suppose, that the one may be otherwise than the other; his will in both senses is his inclination. But when we say he wills virtue, or loves virtue, or the happiness of his creature; thereby is intended, that virtue, or the creature's happiness, absolutely and simply considered, is agreeable to the inclination of his nature. His will of decree is, his inclination to a thing, not as to that thing absolutely and simply, but with respect to the universality of things, that have been, are, or shall be. So God, though he hates a thing as it is simply, may incline to it with reference to the universality of things. Though he hates sin in itself, yet he may will to permit it, for the greater promotion of holiness in this universality, including all things, and at all times. So, though he has no inclination to a creature's misery, considered absolutely, yet he may will it, for the greater promotion of happiness in this universality. God inclines to excellency, which is harmony, but yet he may incline to suffer that which is unharmonious in itself, for the promotion of universal harmony, or for the promoting of the harmony that there is in the universality, and making it shine the brighter. And thus it must needs be, and no hypothesis whatsoever will relieve a man, but that he must own these two wills of God.
13. It is objected against the absolute decrees respecting the future actions of men, and especially the unbelief of sinners, and their rejection of the gospel, that this does not consist with the sincerity of God's calls and invitations to such sinners; as he has willed, in his eternal secret decree, that they should never accept of those invitations. To which I answer, that there is that in God, respecting the acceptance and compliance of sinners, which God knows will never be, and which he has decreed never to cause to be, in which, though it be not just the same with our desiring and wishing for that which will never come to pass, yet there is nothing wanting but what would imply imperfection in the case. There is all in God that is good, and perfect, and excellent in our desires and wishes for the conversion and salvation of wicked men. As, for instance, there is a love to holiness, absolutely considered, or an agreeableness of holiness to his nature and will; or, in other words, to his natural inclination. The holiness and happiness of the creature, absolutely considered, are things that he loves. These things are infinitely more agreeable to his nature than to ours. There is all in God that belongs to our desire of the holiness and happiness of unconverted men and reprobates, excepting what implies imperfection. All that is consistent with infinite knowledge, wisdom, power, self-sufficience, infinite happiness, and immutability. Therefore, there is no reason that his absolute prescience, or his wise determination and ordering what is future, should hinder his expressing this disposition of his nature, in like manner as we are wont to express such a disposition in ourselves, viz. by calls and invitations, and the like.
The disagreeableness of the wickedness and misery of the creature, absolutely considered, to the nature of God, is all that is good in pious and holy men's lamenting the past misery and wickedness of men. Their lamenting these, is good no farther than it proceeds from the disagreeableness of those things to their holy and good nature. This is also all that is good in wishing for the future holiness and happiness of men. And there is nothing wanting in God, in order to his having such desires and such lamentings, but imperfection; and nothing is in the way of his having them, but infinite perfection; and therefore it properly, naturally, and necessarily came to pass, that when God, in the manner of existence, came down from his infinite perfection, and accommodated himself to our nature and manner, by being made man, as he was, in the person of Jesus Christ, he really desired the conversion and salvation of reprobates, and lamented their obstinacy and misery; as when he beheld the city Jerusalem, and wept over it, saying, " O Jerusalem," etc. In the like manner, when he comes down from his infinite perfection, though not in the manner of being, but in the manner of manifestation, and accomodates himself to our nature and manner, in the manner of expression, it is equally natural and proper that he should express himself as though he desired the conversion and salvation of reprobates, and lamented their obstinacy and misery.
Charles Hodge (1797-1878):
Who will have all men to be saved
(Sermon on I Tim. 2:4: "Who will have all men to be saved and to come unto the knowledge of the truth," in Conference Sermons, pp. 18-19)
There are two principles which must control the interpretation of the Scriptures. That is, when a passage admits of two interpretations, the choice between them is to be determined, first, by the analogy of Scripture. If one interpretation contradicts what the Bible elsewhere teaches and another accords with it, then we are bound to accept the latter. Or, secondly, the interpretation must be decided by established facts. That is, if one interpretation agrees with such facts and another contradicts them, then the former must be true.
This passage admits of two interpretations so far as the signification of the words are concerned. First, that God wills, in the sense of purposing or intending, the salvation of all men. This cannot be true, first, because it contradicts the Scriptures. The Scriptures teach 1st, that the purposes of God are immutable, and that they cannot fail of their accomplishment. 2d. That all men are not to be saved. It is clearly taught that multitudes of the human race have perished, are now perishing, and will hereafter perish. That God intends and purposes what he knows is not to happen, is a contradiction. It contradicts the very idea of God, and is an impossibility. Secondly, this interpretation contradicts admitted facts as well as the explicit statements of the Bible.
1. It is a fact that God does not give saving grace to all men. 2. It is a fact that he does not and never has brought all men to the knowledge of the truth. Multitudes of men are destitute of that knowledge, and ever have been. By truth it is clear the apostle means saving truth, the truth as revealed in the gospel, and not merely the truth as revealed by things that are made. This interpretation therefore cannot be correct.
The second interpretation is that God desires the salvation of all men. This means 1st, just what is said when the Scriptures declare that God is good; that he is merciful and gracious, and ready to forgive; that he is good to all, and his tender mercies over all his works. He is kind to the unthankful and to the evil. This goodness or benevolence of God is not only declared but revealed in his works, in his providence, and in the work of redemption. 2d. It means what is said in Ezek. 33:11, "As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked," and in Ezek. 18:23, "Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die, saith the Lord God, and not that he should return from his ways and live?" Also Lam. 3:33, "For he doth not afflict willingly nor grieve the children of men." It means what Christ taught in the parable of the prodigal son, and of the lost sheep and the lost piece of money; and is taught by his lament over Jerusalem.
All these passages teach that God delights in the happiness of his creatures, and that when he permits them to perish, or inflicts evil upon them, it is from some inexorable necessity; that is, because it would be unwise and wrong to do otherwise. His relation is that of a benevolent sovereign in punishing crime, or of a tender judge in passing sentence on offenders, or, what is the familiar representation of Scripture, that of a father who deals with his children with tenderness, yet with wisdom and according to the dictates of right.
This is the meaning of the passage. That it is the correct one is plain,
1. Because it is agreeable to the meaning of the word thelein. In innumerable cases it means to love, delight in, to regard with satisfaction as a thing desirable. "Sacrifice and offerings thou wouldst not," "neither hadst pleasure therein." "Ye cannot do the things that ye would." "For what I would, that do I not, but what I hate, that I do." "We would see a sign from thee." "Be it unto thee even as thou wilt." "If he delight in him" is ei thelei auton. 2. This passage thus interpreted teaches just what the Scriptures elsewhere teach of the goodness of God. 3. It does not contradict the Scriptures as the other does, or make God mutable or impotent. 4. It is accordant with all known facts. It agrees with the fact, that God is benevolent, as shown in his works, and yet that he permits many to perish.
This truth is of great importance, 1. Because all religion is founded on the knowledge of God and on the proper apprehensions of his character. We should err fatally if we conceived of God as malevolent.
2. The conviction that God is love, that he is a kind Father, is necessary to encourage sinners to repent. The prodigal hesitated because he doubted his father's love. It was his hope that encouraged him to return.
3. This truth is necessary to our confidence in God. It is the source of gratitude and love.
4. It is to be held fast to under all circumstances. We are to believe though so much sin and misery are allowed to prevail. We are not to resort to false solutions of this difficulty, to assume that God cannot prevent sin, or that he wills it as a means to happiness. He allows it because it seems good in his sight to do so, and this is the highest and the last solution of the problem of evil.
Asahel Nettleton (1783-1844):
God's goodness in the invitations of mercy to sinners
("Despisest Thou the Riches of God's Goodness?", a sermon on Rom. 2:4, in Asahel Nettleton: Sermons From the Second Great Awakening, Ames, Iowa, 1995, pp. 152-53 and 156)
The riches of divine goodness appear not only in the sufferings and death of the Son of God, but in the melting invitations of mercy to sinners. -- Ho every one that thirsteth. In the parable of the great supper the invitation is to all. Come for all things are now ready. The riches of divine goodness are offered to the poorest and vilest of sinners. To us, my hearers, is the word of this salvation sent. Yes, pardon, peace, and all the treasures of heaven are brought even to our doors and offered to us for nothing. Not only are they freely offered, but even pressed upon our acceptance by every endearing consideration.
Nay, the riches of divine goodness appear in all the warnings of God's word. What a mercy is it that God has not left us to go on in sin without pointing us to its tremendous consequences? Surely every one who is not fully determined to persevere in sin will esteem it a mercy to be told his danger, and to be warned to flee from the wrath to come.
The riches of divine mercy appear in sending the Holy Spirit to convince of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment to come. One would think, that after sinners had rejected the free offers of salvation, God would make no further exertions to save them from deserved wrath. But to all this, he has superadded the strivings of the Holy Spirit. This is God's last effort to save sinners.
Our text speaks of God's forbearance. The impenitent sinner who has stood so long idle in God's vineyard has been spared another year. So many years has the Saviour been standing with open arms and with a bleeding heart inviting him to life. So many duties have been neglected, and so many sins committed in the sight of the sin-hating God and yet the sinner has been spared.
Our text speaks of the longsuffering of God. If God is angry with the wicked every day, and is determined to punish sin, why is it that we yet live? God, my hearers, is longsuffering. No parent ever exercised such forbearance and longsuffering to his own offspring as God does toward impenitent sinners. God has exercised his forbearance and longsuffering toward us far beyond what he has towards most of the human race -- and far beyond some who are lost. The majority of mankind die younger than the most of us who are now in the house of God. Multitudes younger than ourselves have gone to their long home during the year that has past. They have done with Sabbaths and sermons and all the concerns of time. Their day of salvation is over and gone forever. But all the riches of God's goodness and forbearance and longsuffering have been exercised towards sinners in this house and this year. And why is this, my hearers? Why has God borne with us so long? Our text informs us: it is to lead us to repentance. Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth: for the Lord hath spoken, I have nourished and brought up children. He has watched over and fed and clothed us. The sun has arisen and wasted its beams upon us. God has been lavishing on us all the blessings of this life. He has opened the windows of heaven and shed around us the light of the glorious gospel to lead us to repentance.
All who neglect the gospel do emphatically despise the riches of divine goodness. Every day they trample under foot the Son of God. Sinners despise the forbearance and longsuffering of God, every moment they are unconcerned for their souls. I make the appeal to your own consciences. My hearers, had God visited this place with the famine or the pestilence, were your friends and neighbors daily and hourly dying around you -- would you be so regardless of God? Had God in his providence laid you on the bed of sickness and threatened you with a speedy dissolution, would you have treated him with such ungratefulness? And now, because God has been so good, he has spared you and your families and friends and given you all that heart can wish, will you now for all his mercy venture to provoke him? O the ingratitude of such hearts! Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil. The plain language of such conduct is: "If God had not been so good -- if he had not spared me so long, I should not have dared to provoke him as I have done. If God had not been so kind to me, I had not been so regardless of him."