Classic Theological Questions

 Why Doesn’t God Save Everyone? January 24, 2011  Sam Storms

If election were solely based on what God wanted and not anything in us that might differentiate the chosen from the un-chosen and thus account for why this one and not another, why didn’t God choose all? If he could have, why didn’t he? With this question we run headlong into the theological brick wall called “the secret things of God” (Deut. 29:29), on the other wide of which are mysteries inaccessible to the human mind.

Many mistakenly assume that, if God is by nature loving, he must choose all, as if to say it would be a contradiction of the divine character were he not to love everyone equally. But this fails to note that the saving love of God is also sovereign. John Murray explains it this way:

“Truly God is love. Love is not something adventitious; it is not something that God may choose to be or choose not to be. He is love, and that necessarily, inherently, and eternally. As God is spirit, as he is light, so he is love. Yet it belongs to the very essence of electing love to recognize that it is not inherently necessary to that love which God necessarily and eternally is that he should set such love as issues in redemption and adoption upon utterly undesirable and hell-deserving objects. It was of the free and sovereign good pleasure of his will, a good pleasure that emanated from the depths of his own goodness, that he chose a people to be heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ. The reason resides wholly in himself and proceeds from determinations that are peculiarly his as the ‘I am that I am.’”[1]

Thus, to say that love is sovereign is to say it is distinguishing. It is, by definition as saving love, bestowed upon and experienced only by those who are in fact saved (i.e., the elect). Although there is surely a sense in which God loves the non-elect, he does not love them redemptively. If he did, they would certainly be redeemed. God loves them, but not savingly, else they would certainly be saved. All this is to say that God’s eternal, electing love is not universal but particular. Of this we may be certain: God was under no obligation to choose any. Were he to have chosen none, he would have remained perfectly just in doing so. That he chose some is a reflection of sovereign mercy.

“OK,” responds the inquiring soul, “I’ll concede that God doesn’t have to love everyone with the love of election, but that doesn’t tell me why he didn’t. It’s one thing to say God was under no obligation or necessity to elect all unto life. It’s another thing entirely to account for why he chose not to elect all unto life. Or again, it’s one thing to say he didn’t need to choose all. It’s something else entirely to say he didn’t want to choose all.”

But why would God not “want” to choose all? It can’t be because some are less worthy than others of being the objects of electing love, for all are equally deserving of wrath and condemnation. It can only be because there is something God “wants” more than whatever benefits might otherwise be gained by choosing all. But what could possibly be more important to God than delivering all hell-deserving sinners from their plight? The Arminian would say: the preservation of human free will. According to Arminianism, God won’t save all because to do so would require that he intrude upon and override the rebellious will of many unbelievers. God so values the purported dignity of libertarian freedom that he chooses only to save those who believe, although it would be possible to save those who don’t as well.

The Calvinist answers the question in a different way. Again, what could possibly be more important to God than delivering all hell-deserving sinners from their plight? The answer is: the display of the glory of all his attributes for his delight and that of those whom he has chosen to share it. Piper explains that although God is willing to save all he chooses not to do so,

“because there is something else that he wills more, which would be lost if he exerted his sovereign power to save all. . . . Both [Calvinists and Arminians] can say that God wills for all to be saved. But then when queried why all are not saved both Calvinist and Arminian answer that God is committed to something even more valuable than saving all. . . . What does God will more than saving all? The answer given by Arminians is that human self-determination and the possible resulting love relationship with God are more valuable than saving all people by sovereign, efficacious grace. The answer given by Calvinists is that the greater value is the manifestation of the full range of God’s glory in wrath and mercy (Rom. 9:22-23) and the humbling of man so that he enjoys giving all credit to God for his salvation (1 Cor. 1:29).”[2]

In no other area of theology do I feel so urgent a need to be cautious and humble in how I address this problem. What Piper has affirmed and what I am about to say invariably touches a raw nerve in the souls of many, if not all, Christians. I want to avoid sounding flippant or casual in my explanation, lest I give the slightest impression that this is anything less than an incalculably sensitive and explosive matter. How one answers this question, or attempts to answer it while acknowledging that it may well surpass our capacity to fathom, turns on one’s concept of God and the motivation for his having created the human race and sent his Son for the redemption of sinners. With that in mind, and with the unashamed acknowledgment that I may be wrong in the conclusion to which I’ve come, here is what I believe is most consistent with Scripture.

I begin by asking, “Is it truly the case to say God could have elected all unto life?” If by “could” you mean did he have the authority and right and power to choose all, yes. There was no power external to God that would have hindered him in making his electing love universal in scope. There was no deficiency in God’s inherent ability to choose all for life. On the other hand, if God’s choosing was governed by his determination to glorify himself in the highest and most effective way possible by displaying all his divine attributes (including his righteous wrath and justice), I would reverently and humbly say No, he couldn’t have chosen all. That is to say, once divine wisdom determined that the choice of some but not all hell-deserving sinners would most effectively serve to magnify the plenitude of his glory (and of course that is very much the point in dispute), this was a path from which God “could not” deviate (so long, of course, as he retains his determination to achieve this end). Those who take issue with my conclusion will undoubtedly question whether this was in fact the divine motive in creation and redemption. They will contend, in some way, that God’s pre-eminent goal was something other than the display of his own glory. I have attempted to defend this understanding of the ultimate aim of creation and redemption in my books Pleasures Evermore and One Thing and I will simply refer you to the relevant section in those volumes.[3]

Permit me to once again cite Jonathan Edwards’ explanation of this matter together with a few of my own observations, and then leave it with you to wrestle with the implications. Here is what he said:[4]

“It is a proper and excellent thing for infinite glory to shine forth; and for the same reason, it is proper that the shining forth of God’s glory should be complete; that is, that all parts of his glory should shine forth, that every beauty should be proportionably effulgent, that the beholder may have a proper notion of God. It is not proper that one glory should be exceedingly manifested, and another not at all, for then the effulgence would not answer the reality.”

Edwards argues elsewhere that it is more than “proper” and “excellent” that God’s glory shine forth in its fullness, it is essential. This isn’t because something other than and outside God requires it of him. Rather, it is the very nature of divine glory that it tends toward self-expression and expansion, not in the sense of growth or quantitative increase, but manifestation and display for the sake of the joy of God’s creatures in it. Not only that, but it is “proper” that all of God’s glory be seen that we may know God as he truly is and not simply in part. If one or several divine attributes were disproportionately dominant in their display (and others barely noted at all), an imbalanced and inaccurate view of God would emerge (this is what Edwards meant when he said that otherwise “the effulgence would not answer the reality”). He continues:

“Thus it is necessary that God’s awful majesty, his authority and dreadful greatness, justice, and holiness, should be manifested. But this could not be, unless sin and punishment had been decreed; so that the shining forth of God’s glory would be very imperfect, both because these parts of divine glory would not shine forth as the others do, and also the glory of his goodness, love, and holiness would be faint without them; nay, they could scarcely shine forth at all.”

In using the word “necessary” he is not suggesting that sin, considered in and of itself, has a right or inherent claim on existence. Rather, sin was “necessary” in the sense that in its absence there would be no occasion for the display of his righteous wrath, justice, and holiness as that in God which requires punishment (or at least no display sufficient for a “complete” or true knowledge of what God is like and why he is glorious). And without a revelation (or “shining forth”) of the wrath that sin deserves there would scarcely be a revelation of the true and majestic depths of goodness, love, and grace that deliver us from it.

“If it were not right that God should decree and permit and punish sin, there could be no manifestation of God’s justice in hatred of sin or in punishing it, . . . or in showing any preference, in his providence, of godliness before it. There would be no manifestation of God’s grace or true goodness, if there was no sin to be pardoned, no misery to be saved from. No matter how much happiness he might bestow, his goodness would not be nearly as highly prized and admired. . . . and the sense of his goodness heightened.

So evil is necessary if the glory of God is to be perfectly and completely displayed. It is also necessary for the highest happiness of humanity, because our happiness consists in the knowledge of God, and the sense of his love. And if the knowledge of God is imperfect (because of a disproportionate display of his attributes), the happiness of the creature must be proportionably imperfect.”

This point is related to what we see in Romans 9:22-23. God desired to show his wrath and make known his power in order that his mercy and grace might be seen in unmistakable clarity and his glory displayed to his everlasting praise. Were he to have elected all, rather than some, to eternal life this goal would not have been attained nor would the plenitude of God’s glory been sufficiently seen.


[1] John Murray, Redemption, Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), p. 10.

[2] John Piper, “Are There Two Wills in God?” in Still Sovereign: Contemporary Perspectives on Election, Foreknowledge & Grace, edited by Thomas R. Schreiner and Bruce A. Ware (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000), pp. 123-24.

[3] Sam Storms, Pleasures Evermore: The Life-Changing Power of Enjoying God (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2000), pp. 81-101; One Thing: Developing a Passion for the Beauty of God (Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2004), pp. 9-44.

[4] I have taken the liberty of smoothing out Edwards’ prose in order to bring greater clarity to his theological argument. The full entry in his Miscellanies from which this has been taken can be found in Jonathan Edwards, The “Miscellanies,” edited by Thomas A. Schafer (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), no.348, pp. 419-20.

 

Jesus Christ our Lord, moved by a love that was determined to do everything necessary to save us, endured and exhausted the destructive divine judgment for which we were otherwise inescapably destined, and so won us forgiveness, adoption and glory.”

J. I. Packer

 

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