The Will of God and the Gospel Offer

John Howe

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.

John Howe (1630-1705):
God has a propension of will to the obedience and felicity of all men
(The Redeemer’s Tears Wept Over Lost Souls: A Treatise on Luke 19:41-42, from Appendix; and The Reconcilableness of God’s Prescience of the Sins of Men, with the Wisdom and Sincerity of His Counsels, Exhortations, and Whatsoever Means He Uses to Prevent Them, from sections XVII, XVIII, XXI and XXII)
Professor John Murray specified that his reference to God’s preceptive will as desire is to be understood in terms of Howe’s language about God willing complacentially.

The Redeemer’s Tears Wept Over Lost Souls: A Treatise on Luke 19:41-42

Unto what also is discoursed concerning anger and grief, (or other passions,) ascribed to God, it will not be unfit here to add, that unless they be allowed to signify real aversion of will, no account is to be given what reality in him they can signify at all. That it cannot be any passion, as the same names are wont to signify with us, is out of question. Nor indeed do those names primarily, and most properly, signify passion in ourselves. The passion is consequently only by reason of that inferior nature in us, which is susceptible of it. But the aversion of our mind and will is before it, and, in another subject, very separable from it, and possible to be without it. In the blessed God we cannot understand any thing less is signified than real displicency, at the things whereat he is said to be angry or grieved.

Our shallow reason indeed is apt to suggest in these matters, Why is not that prevented that is so displeasing? And it would be said with equal reason in reference to all sins permitted to be in the world, Why was it not prevented? And what is to be said to this? Shall it be said that sin doth not displease God? that he hath no will against sin? It is not repugnant to his will? Yes; it is to his revealed will, to his law. But is that an untrue revelation? His law is not his will itself, but the signum, the discovery of his will. Now, is it an insignificant sign? a sign that signifies nothing? or to which there belong no correspondent significatum? nothing that is signified by it? Is that which is signified (for sure no one will say it signifies nothing) his real will, yea or no? who can deny it? That will, then, (and a most calm, sedate, impassionate will it must be understood to be,) sin, and consequently the consequent miseries of his creatures, are repugnant unto. And what will is that? Tis not a peremptory will concerning the event, for the event falls out otherwise; which were, upon that supposition, impossible; for who hath resisted his will? as was truly intimated by the personated questionist, (Rom. 9:19.) but impertinently, when God’s will of another (not a contrary) kind, i. e. concerning another object, was in the same breath referred unto, Why doth he yet find fault? ‘Tis not the will of the event that is the measure of faultiness, for then there could not have been sin in the world, nor consequently misery, which only, by the Creator’s pleasure, stands connected with it. For nothing could fall out against that irresistible will. The objector then destroys his own objection, so absurdly, and so manifestly, as not to deserve any other reply than that which he meets with. Nay, but who art thou, O man, that repliest against God?

And what is the other object about which the Divine will is also conversant? Matter of duty, and what stands in connection with it — not abstractly and separately, but as it is so connected, our felicity. This is objectively, another will, as we justly distinguish Divine acts, that respect the creature, by their indifferent objects. Against this will falls out all the sin and misery in the world.

Therefore it seems out of question, that the holy God doth constantly and perpetually, in a true sense, will universal obedience, and the consequent felicity of all his creatures capable thereof, i. e. he doth will it with simple complacency, as what were highly grateful to him, simply considered by itself. Who can doubt, but that purity, holiness, blessedness, wheresoever they were to be beheld among his creatures, would be a pleasing and delightful spectacle to him, being most agreeable to the perfect excellency, purity, and benignity of his own nature, and that their deformity and misery must be consequently unpleasing? But he doth not efficaciously will every thing that he truly wills. He never willed the obedience of all his intelligent creatures so, as effectually to make them all obey, nor their happiness, so as to make them all be happy, as the event shows. Nothing can be more certain, than that he did not so will these things; for then nothing could have fallen out to the contrary, as we see much hath. Nor is it at all unworthy the love and goodness of his nature not so to have willed, with that effective will, the universal fulness, sinlessness, and felicity of all his intelligent creatures. The Divine nature comprehends all excellencies in itself, and is not to be limited to that one only of benignity, or an aptness to acts of beneficence. For then it were not infinite, not absolutely perfect, and so not divine. All the acts of his will must be consequently conform and agreeable to the most perfect wisdom. He doth all things according to the counsel of his will. We find he did not think it fit efficaciously to provide concerning all men, that they should be made obedient and happy, as he hath concerning some. That in the general he makes a difference, is to be attributed to his wisdom, i. e. his wisdom hath in the general made this determination, not to deal with all alike, and so we find it ascribed to his wisdom that he doth make a difference: and in what a transport is the holy apostle in the contemplation and celebration of it upon this account! Rom. 11:33. O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!

Yet in the mean time, while God doth not efficaciously will all men’s obedience introductive of their happiness, doth it follow he wills it not really at all? To say he wills it efficaciously, were to contradict experience, and his word; to say he wills it not really, were equally to contradict his word. He doth will it, but not primarily, and as the more principal object of his will. He really wills it, but hath greater reasons than this or that man’s salvation, why he effects it not. And this argues no imperfection in the Divine will, but the perfection of it.

The Reconcilableness of God’s Prescience of the Sins of Men, with the Wisdom and Sincerity of His Counsels, Exhortations, and Whatsoever Means He Uses to Prevent Them

XVII. That which his declarations to men do amount unto, is, in sum, thus much, — that, whereas they have, by their defection and revolt from him, made themselves liable to his justice, and very great consequent miseries; he is willing to pardon, save, and restore them to a blessed state, upon such terms as shall be agreeable (the recompense due to his injured law being otherwise provided for, at no expense of theirs) to the nature of that blessedness they are to enjoy, the purity of his own nature, and the order and dignity of his government.

XVIII. Tis true that he frequently uses much importunity with men, and enforces his laws with that earnestness, as if it were his own great interest to have them obeyed; wherein, having to do with men, he doth like a man, solicitously intent upon an end which he cannot be satisfied till be attain. Yet withal, he hath interspersed, every where in his word, so frequent, Godlike expressions of his own greatness, all-sufficiency, and independency upon his creatures, as that if we attend to these his public declarations, and manifests of himself entirely, so as to compare one thing with another, we shall find the matter not at all dissembled; but might collect this to be the state of things between him and us, that he makes no overtures to us, as thinking us considerable, or as if any thing were to accrue to him from us. But that, as he takes pleasure in the diffusion of his own goodness, so it is our interest to behave ourselves suitably thereunto, and, according as we comply with it, and continue in it, or do not, so we may expect the delectable communications of it, or taste, otherwise, his just severity. That, therefore, when he exhorts, obtests, entreats, beseeches that we would obey and live; speaks as if he were grieved at our disobedience, and what is like to ensue to us therefrom; these are merciful condescensions, and the efforts of that goodness, which chooseth the fittest ways of moving us, rather than that he is moved himself, by any such passions as we are wont to feel in ourselves, when we are pursuing our own designs. And that he vouchsafeth to speak in such a way as is less suitable to himself, that it may be more suitable to us, and might teach us, while he so far complies with us, how becoming it is that we answerably bend ourselves to a compliance with him. He speaks, sometimes, as if he did suffer somewhat human, as an apt means (and which to many proves effectual) to bring us to enjoy, at length, what is truly divine. We may, if we consider, and lay things together, understand these to be gracious insinuations; whereby, as he hath not left the matter liable to be so misunderstood, as if he were really affected with solicitude, or any perturbation concerning us, (which he hath sufficiently given us to understand his blessed nature cannot admit of,) so nor can they be thought to be disguises of himself, or misrepresentations, that have nothing in him corresponding to them. For they really signify the obedience and blessedness of those his creatures that are capable thereof, to be more pleasing and agreeable to his nature and will, than that they should disobey and perish; (which is the utmost that can be understood meant by those words, God will have all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth,) but withal, that he so apprehends the indignity done to his government, by their disobedience, that if they obey not (as the indulgent constitution and temper of his law and government now are, in and by the Redeemer) they must perish. If we consider and recollect, what notices he hath furnished our minds with, of the perfections of a Deity, and what he hath remonstrated to us of his own nature, so plainly in his word; we cannot understand more by it, than the calm dispassionate resentment and dislike, which most perfect purity and goodness have, of the sinfulness and miserable ruin of his own creatures.

XXI. The truth is, (unto which we must esteem ourselves obliged to adhere, both by our assent and defence,) that God doth really and complacentially will (and therefore doth with most unexceptionable sincerity declare himself to will) that to be done and enjoyed by many men, which he doth not, universally, will to make them do, or irresistibly procure that they shall enjoy. Which is no harder assertion, than that the impure will of degenerate, sinful man is opposite to the holy will of God; and the malignity of man’s will to the benignity of his. No harder than that there is sin and misery in the world, which how can we conceive otherwise, than as a repugnancy to the good and acceptable will of God? Methinks it should not be difficult to us to acknowledge, that God doth truly, and with complacency, will whatsoever is the holy, righteous matter of his own laws.

XXII. And whereas it may be thought to follow hence, that hereby we ascribe to God a liableness to frustration, and disappointment. That is without pretence. The resolve of the Divine will, in this matter, being not concerning the event what man shall do, but concerning his duty what he should, and concerning the connection between his duty and his happiness. Which we say he doth not only seem to will, but wills it really and truly. Nor would his prescience of the event, which we all this while assert, let frustration be so much as possible to him. Especially, it being at once foreseen, that his will, being crossed in this, would be fulfilled in so important a thing, as the preserving the decorum of his own government. Which had been most apparently blemished, beyond what could consist with the perfections of the Deity, if either his will concerning men’s duty, or the declarations of that will, had not been substantially the same that they are.

And if yet it should be insisted, that in asserting God to will what by his laws he hath made become man’s duty, even where it is not done we shall herein ascribe to him, at least, an ineffectual and an imperfect will, as which doth not bring to pass the thing willed. It is answered, that imperfection were with no pretence imputable to the Divine will, merely for its not effecting every thing, whereto it may have a real propension. The absolute perfection of his will stands in the proportion, which every act of it bears, to the importance of the things about which it is conversant. Even as, with men, the perfection of any act of will is to be estimated, not by the mere peremptory sturdiness of it, but by its proportion to the goodness of the thing willed.

The will of God is sufficiently to be vindicated from all imperfection, if we have sufficient reason for all the propensions and determinations of it, whether from the value of the things willed, or from his own sovereignty who wills them. In the present case, we need not doubt to affirm, that the obedience and felicity of all men, is of that value, as whereunto a propension of will, by only simple complacency, is proportionable. Yet that his not procuring, as to all, (by such courses as he more extraordinarily takes with some,) that they shall, in event, obey and be happy, is upon so much more valuable reasons as that, not to do it was more eligible, with the higher complacency of a determinative will. And since the public declarations of his good will, towards all men, import no more than the former, and do plainly import so much; their correspondency to the matter declared is sufficiently apparent.

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