God’s Universal Will of Grace

The grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men.

—Titus 2:11

During the season of Epiphany, one of the commonly focused upon church-themes is the manifestation of God’s grace to the world in the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. The saving grace of God is, indeed, for all men, because Christ purchased the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation for all people by His substitutionary life of holiness, suffering, and death (Romans 5:18–19; II Corinthians 5:15, 19). This comforting doctrine is beautifully expressed in the above quoted passage (Titus 2:11), which can be more accurately translated from the original Greek as: “The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men.” (The Greek word translated as “appeared” in this verse is “epiphaino,” from which we get the word “Epiphany.”)

Though the Calvinists say that God’s grace is seriously intended only for a select few (the elect), the Scriptures very clearly teach that the Lord God, in Christ, loves all people and desires to save them all. This doctrine of God’s universal will of grace can be observed in so many different Bible passages. Consider, for example, these that describe Christ’s purpose for coming into the world: “God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved (John 3:16–17); “I am the Light of the world (John 8:12; 9:5); and “The Son of Man is come to seek and to save that which was lost (Luke 19:10). Consider also the passages that speak of how many were redeemed by His suffering and death: “[Christ Jesus] gave Himself a ransom for all (I Timothy 2:6); “[Christ] died for all (II Corinthians 5:15); and “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world (John 1:29). This includes even those who deny Him and are eternally damned (II Peter 2:1). That Christ’s substitutionary active and passive obedience (His perfect life and His innocent suffering and death) appeased God’s wrath against the sins of the world and were accepted for the reconciliation and forgiveness of all mankind is shown in such passages as I John 2:1–2, II Corinthians 5:19, and Romans 5:18–19. And because the saving faith that receives God’s gracious forgiveness is worked through the Gospel (Romans 1:16; 10:14–17), Jesus commissioned His disciples to carry the Gospel to all people, saying: “Ye shall be witnesses unto Me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8); and “Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). Finally, consider the passages in which the Lord our God unequivocally states that He does not want anyone to remain in unbelief and be damned but desires to bring all to repentance and faith for their eternal salvation: “As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live” (Ezekiel 33:11); “The Lord is…not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (II Peter 3:9); “God our Savior…will have all men to be saved and to come unto the knowledge of the truth” (I Timothy 2:3–4). Indeed, the Scriptures leave no doubt about God’s universal will of grace!

Sadly, however, even though the Lord sincerely desires to save every human being, the vast majority of people are not saved, but are eternally damned. Jesus says: “Enter ye in at the strait gate, for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction; and many there be which go in thereat because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life; and few there be that find it” (Matthew 7:13–14). Now the fact that most people are not saved is taken by the Calvinists to be proof that God does not want to save all. Of course, the many passages cited in the previous paragraph are sufficient to refute that false claim. Arguing against all the Scriptural proof for the doctrine of God’s universal will of grace, the Calvinists employ three basic tactics: 1) They assert that some Bible passages show that God never wanted to save certain people; 2) they claim that the “hidden will of God” (what He has not revealed in the Scriptures) is the opposite of what He has revealed about His will in this matter; and 3) they appeal to “logical” deductions.

So, what Bible passages could the Calvinists possibly cite that would argue against God’s universal will of grace? It should be understood that no passages of Scripture actually do argue against, or contradict, any other passages of Scripture. A contradiction in His Word is an impossibility because “[God’s] Word is truth” (John 17:17); and a contradiction would imply an error. But false prophets twist the Scriptures (II Peter 3:16), put their own private interpretations upon the Bible (II Peter 1:20), and thereby seek to set Scripture against Scripture. One way that the Calvinists do this is by attacking God’s universal will of grace using passages that set forth God’s secondary (or consequent) will to punish those who reject His grace in Christ—even punishing them in their earthly lives by increasing their opposition to the Gospel. “God shall send them strong delusion that they should believe a lie; that they all might be damned who believed not the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness” (II Thessalonians 2:11–12). Such passages do not, however, argue against the fact that God wants to save all people by faith in Christ Jesus; they simply set forth the consequences of rejecting God’s grace in Christ (II Thessalonians 2:10), namely, they “bring upon themselves” God’s wrath and punishment (II Peter 2:1b). Take, for example, how God says of the Israelites who rebelled against Him: “I gave them up unto their own hearts’ lust; and they walked in their own counsels” (Psalm 81:12). Now that verse might be taken by a Calvinist as proof that God never wanted to save those people and had even predestinated them to damnation, since He gave them up unto their sinful ways. But that opinion is quickly disproved by what God says in the very next verse: “Oh that My people had hearkened unto Me, and Israel had walked in My ways!” Thus He clearly expresses His desire that they would have followed Him instead of going their own way. Again, a Calvinist might think he has proof that God never wanted to save those who go to hell when he reads in Isaiah 63:10 that the Lord actually “fought against” the rebellious Israelites as their Enemy. But reading that verse in context shows the great love that the Triune God had for them (according to His primary will), but that His secondary will to punish them came as a result of their rejection of His love. “He was their Savior. In all their affliction He was afflicted, and the Angel of His presence saved them. In His love and in His pity He redeemed them; and He bare them and carried them all the days of old. But they rebelled and vexed His Holy Spirit; therefore He was turned to be their Enemy, and He fought against them” (Isaiah 63:8–10).

But even if the Calvinists concede that the Scriptures do teach God’s universal will of grace, that does not mean that they actually accept it to be true. This is because they regard the true, hidden will of the Lord to be different than (even the exact opposite of) what is revealed in the Gospel about God’s desire to save all people. Commenting on II Peter 3:9, which states that “the Lord is…not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance,” Calvin writes: “No mention is here made of the hidden purpose of God, according to which the reprobate are doomed to their own ruin, but only of His will as made known to us in the Gospel” (Calvin’s Commentaries, II Peter 3:9). Such an opinion is quite blasphemous for two basic reasons: 1) Calvin dares to presume to know something about God’s “hidden purpose”; and 2) What Calvin claims to be “the hidden purpose of God” is a contradiction of “His will as made known to us in the Gospel”—thus making Him a liar. Yes, those who argue against what the Lord has plainly declared in His Word are calling Him a liar (I John 1:10; 5:10)!

Now on other occasions, Calvin warned against speculating in the matter of God’s hidden will—“when puny man endeavors to penetrate to the hidden recesses of the divine wisdom” (Institutes, Book 3, chapter 24, §4). And yet Calvin still felt justified in ascribing the cause of man’s damnation to the “hidden purpose of God,” because he regarded this to be the only logical and reasonable answer to the question: “If God wishes none to perish, why is it that so many do perish?” (Calvin’s Commentaries, II Peter 3:9). Simply put, the “logical” argument of the Calvinists is this: Since God can do anything He wants, and since not all people are saved, it proves that God does not truly want to save all people. Now this particular defense of the Calvinistic heresy is actually the origin of the heresy—it is the only “reasonable” explanation that Calvin could imagine to explain why God does not save all people, when He certainly has the ability to do so.

In trying to solve the seeming mystery concerning why God does not save all people, the only solutions that occur to the fleshly or “carnal mind” of man, in which “dwelleth no good thing” (Romans 7:18) and which is “enmity against God” (Romans 8:7), are that there must either be a difference in God’s initial disposition toward some people (as opposed to others), or a difference in some people’s (as opposed to others’) natural disposition toward God. Calvinism maintains that the difference is in God—that the Lord does not truly want all to be saved. Synergism (the teaching that man must assist in his conversion) maintains that the difference is in man—that some people in their natural condition resist the Holy Ghost more or less than others do. The Scriptures, however, show both of those opinions to be false.

The Jews of Jesus’ day often contrived questions intended to “entangle Him in His talk” (Matthew 22:15). Similar insidious questions still today are phrased in such a way as to “set up” the Christian to give a false answer no matter how he addresses them. In some cases, the “trick” or self-contradiction is obvious: “If God is almighty, could He create a stone so great that He couldn’t move it?” Other questions, however, simply trigger carnal rationalism and suggest that a false answer is completely “reasonable.” At the behest of Satan, such questions are offensive and come from those who “savor not the things that be of God but those that be of men” (Matthew 16:23; Mark 8:33).

Dr. Franz Pieper noted in the Brief Statement of 1897 that such questions “[have] been frequently raised in the Christian Church, especially in our day” — certainly not on the part of the orthodox but on the part of the heterodox in outward Christendom — to trap believers into espousing either Calvinism or synergism in the matter of conversion. He cites one in the following words: “What is the cause why not all men are converted, seeing that the grace of God is universal, and that all men are alike found in a state of utter depravity?” We also find the trap worded in other ways: “Why some and not others?,” “Why some instead of others?,” and “Why not all?” This trap has been called the crux theologorum or the “cross of theologians,” a cross certainly not of God’s making to strengthen us (cf. Hebrews 12:10b-11), but a trap of the carnal mind to ensnare us (cf. II Timothy 2:23). We “cannot answer” such tempting questions because of the way they are worded, neither should we be made compelled to answer them according to the way they are worded (Proverbs 26:4) because of the disastrous results that occur when people do so.

Restricting ourselves to what God has revealed in the Bible, we are able to answer these separate questions: “Why are those saved who are saved?,” and “Why are those damned who are damned?” The cause of man’s salvation is the grace of God in Christ apart from any merit on the part of man (Ephesians 2:8–9; II Timothy 1:9); and the cause of man’s damnation is his own sins, unbelief, and rejection of the Gospel (Matthew 23:37; II Thessalonians 1:7–9). These truths do not, however, permit us to explain why one person is saved as opposed to another, because God’s grace in Christ is universal (I Timothy 2:3–6), and because man’s opposition to the Gospel by nature is also universal (I Corinthians 2:14). Holy Scripture does not allow us to say, or imply, that the Lord is even partially to blame for a man’s damnation; nor does Scripture allow us to say, or imply, that man is even partially responsible for his own salvation. God says: “O Israel, thou hast destroyed thyself; but in Me is thine help” (Hosea 13:9).

Our orthodox Lutheran forefathers strenuously warned against trying to explain why not all people are saved—warning against falling into Calvinism or synergism. Consider what was written by Dr. Pieper in his original Brief Statement of 1897 concerning the question “What is the cause why not all men are converted?”:

We profess that on Scriptural ground we know only this much, that it is due to the grace of God, and to it alone, if men are converted, while it is due to men, and to them alone, and is not due to a defect in grace, if men are not converted, as is written, Hosea 13:9: “O Israel, thou hast destroyed thyself; but in me is thine help.” Here we rest the matter, since Scripture has revealed nothing further.

And in the Brief Statement of 1932 (which, by God’s grace, is still our confession today) under the section Of Conversion:

As to the question why not all men are converted and saved, seeing that God’s grace is universal and all men are equally and utterly corrupt, we confess that we cannot answer it. From Scripture we know only this: A man owes his conversion and salvation, not to any lesser guilt or better conduct on his part, but solely to the grace of God. But any man’s non-conversion is due to himself alone; it is the result of his obstinate resistance against the converting operation of the Holy Ghost, Hosea 13:9.

And, regarding reiterate conversion versus judicial hardening:

As regards these things in this disputation which would soar too high and beyond these limits, we should with Paul place the finger upon our lips and remember and say, Romans 9:20: “O man, who art thou that repliest against God?” The Formula of Concord describes the mystery which confronts us here not as a mystery in man’s heart (a “psychological” mystery), but teaches that, when we try to understand why “one is hardened, blinded, given over to a reprobate mind, while another, who is indeed in the same guilt, is converted again” [Triglotta, p. 1081, 57–59, 60b, 62, 63; Mueller p. 716ff.] we enter the domain of the unsearchable judgments of God and ways past finding out, which are not revealed to us in His Word, but which we shall know in eternal life, I Corinthians 13:12. Calvinists solve this mystery, which God has not revealed in His Word, by denying the universality of grace; synergists, by denying that salvation is by grace alone. Both solutions are utterly vicious, since they contradict Scripture and since every poor sinner stands in need of, and must cling to, both the unrestricted universal grace and the unrestricted “by grace alone,” lest he despair and perish. (Brief Statement of 1932, Sections 14–16)

“In answering questions,” Dr. Pieper concludes, “we do not proceed further than Scripture leads us, and Scripture teaches that whoever is converted is converted solely by the grace of God, and whoever remains unconverted must ascribe this fact to the resistance which he has offered to the gracious operations of the Holy Ghost” (Brief Statement of 1897).

Clinging to the glorious Gospel of God’s grace in Christ Jesus, we can all rejoice in the fact that the Lord truly loves us and desires to save each and every one of us, because the Bible clearly teaches that He loves and desires to save all mankind! Moreover, we can all rejoice that our eternal salvation in heaven is not in the least bit dependent upon our works (or lesser resistance of the Spirit), but is completely the result of the gracious working of God in our behalf. May the Lord, therefore, graciously preserve us from all rationalism and human speculation that would undermine His precious Word and mercifully grant unto us true humility of spirit to believe and confess only that which is in full harmony with the sacred Scriptures!

— P. E. B.

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