John Davenant, Another Enticement For The “Reformed” (in name only)

“If it be denied that Christ died for some persons, it will immediately follow, that such could not be saved, even if they should believe.”

I can understand Arminians saying such a thing but when those who profess to be Reformed say things like that, more than bad theology is at play. (And by the way, why do latent Arminians insist upon being considered Reformed?)

At the risk of addressing the obvious, such a sentiment assumes what must be proven, that those for whom Christ did not die can believe. From a Reformed perspective, how does this not deny irresistible grace and inseparable operations of the Trinity?*

“if nothing else is judged possible to be done, except those things which God hath decreed to be done, it would follow that the Divine power is not infinite.”.

John Davenant, Dissertation on the Death of Christ, n.d., 439


God having already decreed that the boulder would fall from the cliff entails that God could not prevent the boulder from falling from the cliff. The “could not” is due not to a lack of divine power but a want of divine will. Because God cannot deny himself (or act contrary to how he has determined he will act), God’s inability to act upon the boulder either directly, or through secondary causes, is ascribable not to finite power in the Godhead but the outworking of God’s internal consistency, from decree to providence.

That God’s omnipotence and decree are not mutually exclusive entailments implies that the latter does not diminish the former, though it will certainly curtail and redirect its decretive unleashing in ordinary providence. Davenant and his recent followers not only miss this. Is there any indication they’ve even considered it?

“The death of Christ is applicable to any man living, because the condition of faith and repentance is possible to any living person, the secret decree of predestination or preterition in no wise hindering or confining this power either on the part of God, or on the part of men. They act, therefore, with little consideration who endeavour, by the decrees of secret election and preterition, to overthrow the universality of the death of Christ, which pertains to any persons whatsoever according to the tenor of the evangelical covenant.”

Davenant, Loc. Cit.

In other words, for Davenant, it is possible for those not elected unto salvation to be saved. Indeed, it is possible for those not chosen in Christ to be baptized into the work of the cross.

Pelagian connotations aside as they relate to faith and repentance, if Davenant is correct, then it is possible that God’s decree not come to pass. It is possible that more are saved than predestined unto salvation. It is possible that God can be wrong! Or does God not believe his decree will come to pass?

Possibility with zero probability of occurring:

Simply try to imagine a possible world in which Esau is not elect but enters into everlasting life contrary to God’s will of decree. In other words, is there a possible world in which some are redeemed yet the elect are less in number than they? If not, then so much for this already rejected view of the atonement that posits incoherence by implicitly denying exhaustive omniscience, penal substitution, and the inseparable operations of the Trinity.** That’s what Davenant “possibility” gets you. (Enter now the sophistry of Molinism with its might-counterfactuals and possible-feasible worlds distinction.)

Confessional?

Regarding confessional status, any extra-confessional teaching that leads to confessional doctrinal contradiction may be confidently rejected for being un-confessional even if not explicitly refuted by the church’s standards, (regardless if a delegate to the assembly held the view in question). Otherwise, we unnecessarily introduce incoherence and confusion into our system(s) of doctrine.

A “consensus” document does not preclude certain doctrines from having won the day. So, for instance, any view of free will that by necessary implication entails that God is contingently infallible must be rejected as non-confessional. So it is with all forms of hypothetical universalism that lead to intra-confessional doctrinal incoherence.

I find it a stretch to call a doctrine “within the Reformed tradition” merely because a delegate held to it. When a confession is not already internally contradictory, let’s not allow it to be! For a doctrine to be considered confessional it must be explicitly taught or necessary implied by the confession and cannot introduce contradictions to other confessional doctrines. Again, we may not introduce teachings that are not inferable or would undermine other confessional doctrines, even though our confession is a consensus document of sorts. After all, what does it mean for a teaching to be “within the bounds of a Reformed confession” if it entails an implicit denial of another doctrine of the same confession? Roman Catholics are often constrained to speak that way (vis-à-vis Trent and Vatican ii) but why should the Reformed make such concessions? Can a doctrine be incoherent and Reformed? How about contra-confessional? We’re discussing what it is for a doctrine to be confessional or Reformed. That should be an objective consideration, unlike whether one wants subjectively to label someone else as Reformed. Is John MaCArthur “Reformed”? He’s certainly not confessional!

Clichés that obfuscate:

It’s inescapable, the atonement is a matter of divine intent, which is equivocally obscure within Davenant’s hypothetical universalism.

Little clichés like Christ’s death is “sufficient for all, efficient for the elect” have no place in rigorous systematic theology. A sufficient condition entails a state of affairs that if met ensures another state of affairs. In that sense, the cliché implies actual universalism. Sufficient and efficient become functionally indistinguishable and the cliché, tautological. Yet if “sufficient for all” is intended to convey that Christ’s death would save you if you believe, then redemption becomes necessary for saving faith, which isn’t very interesting. That one cannot have saving faith without the work of the cross, although true, doesn’t advance the discussion. Accordingly, we are back to election and irresistible grace, which are anything but sufficient for all! The historia salutis and ordo salutis must coincide.

In closing:

It would be helpful if those with positions of influence (I’m only referring to them), who claim to be Reformed while showing sympathy to Davenant’s view of possibility, would acquire a contemporary philosophical taxonomy and better grasp of modal concepts. If these historical types who promote not just aberrant but incoherent views would improve upon their equivocal notions, and gain a bit more philosophical understanding, consistency and theological trajectory, they might develop some semblance of appreciation for their modal claims; they might begin to see that they neatly align with Molinism and not confessional Calvinism given (at best) a Davenant underdeveloped version of the “logical-possible chasm” of Molinism.

Upon the Reformed (in name only) becoming better informed on necessity, possibility, metaphysical contingency, compatibilism etc., and thereby becoming self-consciously (or at least more consistently) Molinists, non-libertarian Calvinists might then refer these historical types (who too often show insufficient interest in understanding theological compatibilism) to the preponderance of refutations of the most sophisticated form(s) of Arminianism, if not also to some of the better Molinism arguments out there. Until then, we weep and pray, perhaps most of all for the relatively few Reformed institutions that are towing the line, as well as for those institutions that are not equipping the capable while simultaneously enabling the philosophically disinterested to gain a seat at the Reformed table.***

Footnotes that might surprise:

* A similar informal fallacy is committed here by perhaps the most notable popularizer of Davenant’s Hypothetical Universalism: 

“The logic goes something like this: ‘The gospel offer, which ministers are called to proclaim, must indiscriminately include this proposition: God is, according to his divine justice and on account of the person and work of Jesus Christ, able to forgive any person of their sins.’ For this proposition to be true, it then must be the case that God in Christ made a remedy for every person such that God is able to fulfill the antecedent condition proclaimed in the gospel—viz., God is able to forgive the sins of any person. In order to claim that God in Christ made a remedy sufficient for every person, we must affirm that God intended that Christ make a remedy for every person.” (Confessional Orthodoxy and Hypothetical Universalism: Another Look at the Westminster Confession of Faith, pp. 134-5).

This is another example of assuming what needs to be proven. Consider the author’s proposition:

“God is, according to his divine justice and on account of the person and work of Jesus Christ, able to forgive any person of their sins.”

If the doctrine of limited atonement is true, then it is false that God is “able to forgive *any* person of their sins.” Accordingly, the author has begged the question and traded in ambiguity by not recognizing that God’s “ability” to forgive any particular person is predicated upon full satisfaction having been made for any particular person who would be forgiven. Consequently, the proposition doesn’t establish a doctrine of unlimited atonement. Rather, it assumes it!
** Of course no Davenant disciple will acknowledge her denial of orthodox Theology Proper. But I suppose that’s due to a failure to recognize the implications of one’s own position.

Regarding exhaustive omniscience, penal substitution and inseparable operations of the Trinity in light of the alleged possibility:

If God had known non elect persons would convert, they would have been elect. They were not elect (yet would convert), therefore, God did not know they would convert (though they would). 

If Christ dies for some whose sins will be paid for in hell, then Christ’s sacrifice is not vicariously propitiatory for at least some. 

If the Spirit converts (or aids in converting) contrary to the Father’s choosing, it is unreasonable that the Father acts with the Spirit in conversion. In fact, the Covenant of Redemption is undermined. 

(Molinist might-counterfactuals can’t save this.)
*** I won’t name seminaries or professors but Modern Reformation, Reformation 21 and Greystone Institute are examples of giving credence to Davenant’s hypothetical universalism and consequently a seat at the Reformed table. Why is that not deemed outrageous by NAPARC churches and Reformed seminaries? (Shortly after publishing article, Greystone Institute removed linked article by Mark Garcia that looked favorably upon the incoherence of Davenant’s hypothetical universalism.)


Moreover, many seasoned pastors in the Reformed tradition will say things like “God knows the future because he transcends time and the future is all before him.” That’s a direct denial of the determinative nature of divine decree and an implicit affirmation of God being eternally informed by the self-existing wills of uninstantiated essences. Why that is not deemed as outrageous is telling.

Even a relatively recent commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith looks favorably upon Middle Knowledge, which is another example of giving non-confessional views a seat at the Reformed table.

Accordingly, it’s not surprising that rarely have I read a theological exam of a seminarian seeking licensure or ordination (and rarely have I had a discussion on theological compatibilism with such a person) that demonstrates a minimally thoughtful rejection of libertarian freedom or an understanding of combatibilist freedom and the determinative nature of the Divine Decree. After all, it’s rare for students to be acquainted with, let alone internalize, concepts they haven’t yet been exposed to.

John Frame had similar experiences: “I don’t know how many times I have asked candidates for licensure and ordination whether we are free from God’s decree, and they have replied ‘No, because we are fallen.’ That is to confuse libertarianism (freedom from God’s decree, ability to act without cause) with freedom from sin. In the former case, the fall is entirely irrelevant. Neither before nor after the fall did Adam have freedom in the libertarian sense. But freedom from sin is something different. Adam had that before the fall, but lost it as a result of the fall.”

Calvinist Paul Manata has noted, “One often finds misunderstandings disseminated by laymen on the Internet. This should not be surprising, for a cursory look at what Reformed teachers have said on the subject gives evidence of at least a surface tension among Reformed thinkers.”

I appreciate my article might come across as contentious to some. My concern that constrains me to write as I have is that I desire not to eclipse the problem I hope to further unearth, which extends beyond this particular stripe of hypothetical universalism. The doctrinal infidelity in “confessional” churches is, I believe, at an all time low. That Reformed folk are entertaining hypothetical universalism is just an indicator of a much larger problem. For more on that, read on.

5 Point Molinists & Pervasive Confusion

I have been convinced for well over a decade not only that many professing Calvinists are latent Molinists but that most are.

Here we find what I believe to be a representative sample of how Calvinists relate free will to the decree of God. The author of the piece earned a Masters in Divinity (minor in Systematic Theology) and his Doctorate at a renowned Baptist theological seminary.

I’ll interact below with pertinent excerpts from the piece, though it brings me no pleasure to do so. It’s actually rather discouraging for me, which might explain why I’ve procrastinated for nearly a month on offering this brief interaction after having recently read the five year old piece.

Sadly, the post can be found on the Founders Ministries website, an organization “committed to encouraging the recovery of the gospel and the biblical reformation of local churches.”

With respect to the human will, the confession states, “nor is violence offered to the will of the creature, nor yet is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established” (2LCF 3.1). To understand what this means, it is critical to understand the meaning of the word “contingency.” J.V. Fesko explains:

Contingency does not mean that something does not have a cause, as Jonathan Edwards argued. Rather, it means that something could be otherwise. God’s decree, for example, is contingent in the sense that he was under no external or internal necessity to decree anything – He was free to decree and free not to decree

When Edwards spoke of contingency in this respect, he was correct. Contra-Edwards the metaphysical contingency of Arminian freedom implies a pure spontaneity that renders choices causeless (thereby morally irrelevant). Yet this Arminian notion of human freedom is now pervasive among Calvinists, that a choice might / could be otherwise than what it would be.

Lest there be any misunderstanding, I do maintain that a choice could possibly be different, but that pertains to contingent truths and possible worlds, not causal necessity within any possible world. What is rejected is necessitarianism. In other words, there are possible worlds in which identical states of affairs result in different volitional dispositions, but in any particular world how things are secures how things will be by virtue of God’s pre-interpretation of the particulars, whereby God decrees the intelligible mapping of cause (how things are) to effect (how things will be).

(A common error among Calvinists is the failure to grasp the compatibility of contingent truths with decretive causal necessity.)

In the immediate context of God having been free to decree and free not to decree, the author claims that the same is true of free human choices.

The same is true of free human choices. When human beings choose freely, the confession says they have the ability to choose other than what they chose.

The Confession says no such thing; nor does it imply the Arminian notion of “the ability to choose other than what they chose.” That’s libertarian freedom of the non-Frankfurt variety!^

In the chapter on divine providence, the confession says that God orders all things “to fall out according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently” (2LCF 5.2). God decrees contingent things without imposing any necessity upon them. His decree renders contingent things certain but not necessary.

(I ache in the depths of my soul.) God doesn’t impose any necessity? Then how does God ensure certainty? Reformed scholastics and contemporary compatibilists appreciate that certainty presupposes a particular kind of necessity, causal necessity.#.

In the case of sin, human beings can always choose otherwise, but God’s decree makes their choice certain.

That sentiment is straight out of the Molinist play book. Molinism affirms both the certainty of the fruition of the divine decree and the ultimate sourcehood essential to choosing otherwise.+ (Given the Edward’s remark, I doubt we can salvage the “can always choose otherwise” with the conditional analysis of (Edwardsian) classical compatibilism. Surely there’s no basis to read into the statement an Edwardsian use of hypothetical ability. It’s nowhere in view. No, we must take the author at face value, that given the same state of affairs a free moral agent might choose contrary to divine foreknowledge, though he never would.)

Surely something must ensure the certainty of choices if they’re to be certain at all. What ensures their certainty is not some vague notion of “God’s decree” but rather the causal necessity that God’s decree contemplates; yet that is precisely what the author denies by denying causal necessity and positing ability to choose contrary to how one would. Certainty presupposes not ability but inability to choose otherwise. Certainty presupposes causality.

Whatever the Confession is looking to teach by “necessarily, freely or contingently”* we may not separate those concepts from the explicit statement that immediately precedes those adverbs. Those things that fall out in such a way that make them certain do so according to the nature of “second causes”. Now surely where there is cause, there is effect. And where there is cause and effect, there is causal necessity!

With respect to human freedom, the Reformed tradition on the matter of volition entails a metaphysic of causal necessity. Accordingly, to say that God’s “decree renders contingent things certain but not necessary” is not only confused – it bespeaks incompatibilism. What is being offered as a Reformed understanding of the mechanics of choosing is that freedom is incompatible with causal necessity, which is an outright denial of a Reformed view of compatibilism – a view that human freedom is compatible with the causal necessity of Causal Divine Determinism.

This means that “certainty” and “contingency” are not mutually exclusive.

Not so. In the sense that contingency is being employed by the author – as the ability to choose contrary to how one would – it most surely is incompatible with certainty and consequently exhaustive omniscience. (Enter Open Theism)


After private interaction with one Augustinian thinker, it has become clear to me that it is believed by some that by virtue of God decreeing a counterfactual true it, therefore, becomes a necessary truth, which in turn makes it an object of natural knowledge. That is simply wrong by definition and entails dualistic implications, not unlike Molinism. Perhaps the renown Reformed philosopher doesn’t recognize that non-necessary contingent truths can be decreed as causally necessary. Other Augustinian thinkers more steeped in contemporary taxonomy, analytic philosophy and philosophical theology grasp the error and its implications immediately.

^ The ability to do otherwise is not a necessary condition for libertarian freedom as long as the agent performing the choice is not caused to do it other than by herself. There are Frankfurt libertarians who subscribe to agent causation.

# What’s commonly missed is that contingent truths can be causally necessary. In other words, a counterfactual can be causally necessary without being necessarily true. That distinction is surprisingly missed by many Reformed compatibilists who have a seat at the Free Will discussion table.

+ God can, by decreeing to place just those persons in just those circumstances, bring about His ultimate purposes through free creaturely decisions. William Lane Craig, Molinist

* In passing we might note that a consistently Reformed rendering of caused effects falling out “necessarily, freely or contingently” is to apply those descriptors to (a) physical laws of nature, (b) human intentions and (c) apparent chance, respectively: Genesis 8:22; Proverbs 4:23; Deuteronomy 19:5

The Free Offer Of The Gospel, Not What You’ve Been Told!


Q. What is effectual calling?
A. Effectual calling is the work of God’s Spirit, whereby, convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills, he doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel.

WSC Q&A 31


Moreover, it is the promise of the gospel that whoever believes in Christ crucified shall not perish but have eternal life. This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be announced and declared without differentiation or discrimination to all nations and people, to whom God in his good pleasure sends the gospel.

Canons of Dort 2.5

The free offer of the gospel (abbreviated “free offer”) has meant different things at different times. From a confessional standpoint, it can only mean that God sincerely offers salvation to all who repent and believe. The meaning is at best narrow. The confessions do not speak in terms of God’s desire for all men to be saved; they merely teach that God promises the gift of everlasting life to all who would turn from self to Christ. This promise of life through faith is sincere. It is a genuine offer. If you believe, you will be saved. This gospel is to go out to all men everywhere.

Arminians are often quick to point out that the free offer is inconsistent with Calvinism. They reason that if the offer of the gospel is sincere and to go out to all people without exception, then God must desire the salvation of all people without exception. Otherwise, they say, the offer isn’t sincere. How can God desire the salvation of all men without exception if God as the ultimate decider of man’s salvation chooses to pass over some? In other words, Arminians reason that unless God desires to save all men, which they observe does not comport with Calvinism, the free offer of life through faith is insincere when given to the reprobate. Their axiom is that a sincere gospel offer implies a sincere desire to see the offer accepted, a well-meant offer. More on that in a moment.

The OPC’s Majority Report

The Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), representative of possibly most Calvinists today on the matter of the free offer, under the leadership of John Murray and Ned Stonehouse, adopted as a majority position the Arminian view that God desires the salvation of all men. While still holding fast to the Reformed view of predestination, the OPC affirmed the view that that the free offer cannot adequately be disassociated from a divine desire of salvation for all men without exception. In other words, such Calvinists assert that the genuineness of the gospel offer presupposes God’s desire that all embrace Christ.

Subsequently, the free offer has taken on the additional meaning of a well-meant offer, or desire, that the reprobate turn and be saved. Accordingly, a major difference between Arminians and such Calvinists as these is on the question of consistency.

Back to first principles. What makes an offer genuine or sincere?

Can we judge whether an offer is genuine or sincere simply based on whether it is true or not? If God intends to keep his promise, then isn’t the offer genuine? With respect to the gospel, if one meets the condition of faith, he will one day enter the joy of Lord. Isn’t that enough to make the offer of salvation sincere?

Let’s do some basic theology…

What does it mean that God desires the salvation of the reprobate? Are we to believe that God desires the reprobate to do something he cannot do, namely regenerate himself and grant himself union with Christ? Or, is that to check our Calvinism at the door? Isn’t it Jesus who saves? Isn’t salvation of God after all? At best, if we are to remain consistent with our Calvinism, then wouldn’t it follow that to argue for a well-meant offer of the gospel we’d have to posit that God desires that he himself would regenerate the reprobate unto existential union with Christ? After all, when God desires the salvation of the elect, his desire is fulfilled not through sinners giving life to themselves but by God recreating sinners in Christ according to his predestinating decree of salvation.

Aside from the question of whether God desires that unchosen persons act contrary to the decree, what does it mean for God to desire that he himself act contrary to how he determined he would act? Of course, I know no Calvinist who affirms the well-meant offer of the gospel who would say that God desires that he had elected all unto salvation, or anything like that. Yet if man cannot turn himself, as Calvinism clearly affirms, then isn’t the implication of a well-meant offer that God desires that he would turn those he has determined not to save?

Simply stated, since Calvinism affirms total depravity, wouldn’t it stand to reason from a Calvinistic perspective that if God desires someone’s salvation, God must desire that he save that person? Accordingly, the questions that should be considered in this regard are either (a) “Does God desire the reprobate to turn himself and live?” Or (b), “Does God desire that he himself turn the reprobate so that he can live?”

Given that man is blind and deaf to spiritual things and cannot do anything to turn himself Godward, how are we not strictly dealing with the theological plausibility of (b), that God desires to turn the reprobate contrary to what he has already decreed? If TULIP is true, then (a) would seem to be a non-starter.

Now then, is it reasonable to think that the Holy Spirit desires to turn the reprobate Godward when the Father, in eternity, did not choose the reprobate in Christ? Moreover, if Christ did not die for the reprobate and does not pray that the efficacy of the cross would be applied to the reprobate (John 17:9), then in what sense does God desire the reprobate’s salvation? Does God desire that for which Christ does not pray? Does the Trinity desire that persons of the Godhead work at cross purposes? Does God desire true contradictions after all? Or is this a matter of mystery? Does God have multiple wills, let alone multiple wills that are at cross-purposes? Or is this a matter of two opposing truths that we should accept by faith? Apparent contradiction or true contradiction?

Let’s face it:

Not only can God not deny himself by acting contrary to the Covenant of Redemption (CoR) by saving the reprobate whom he did not elect in Christ; 2000 years ago God acted in time sealing that inability by securing salvation only for the elect. If so, then does it not follow that for God to desire the salvation of the reprobate, we should be willing to say that God, today, desires to break the CoR and that Jesus would have died for the reprobate 2000 years ago?

Or is there a third way of living looking at this? Does God live with a sense of regret or un-fulfillment? Is God passible or impassible?

The OPC is quick to point out that they are not advocating a position entailing God both desiring and not desiring his decree. Fine, but then what does it mean for God to desire that men act contrary to his decree? Can God desire his decree while also desiring men to act in such a way that would thwart it? No amount of mystery can salvage metaphysical (or broadly logical) contradiction.

Accidental necessity:

The past and all it contemplates is necessary. Therefore, in our refutation of a well meant offer, we may develop and apply the principle of accidental necessity as it relates to God allegedly desiring to be true (the salvation of the reprobate), when it is now past and consequently necessarily false that atonement was made on behalf of the reprobate! In other words, does God desire things He has now made impossible to obtain? (This observation also pertains to the preposterous notion of Hypothetical Universalism.)

Mystery cannot save contradiction. Accordingly, any appeal to exegesis should not make God out to be internally incoherent. It’s to put forth a passible and a non-omnipotent God to declare to any particular person that God desires her salvation in particular. God desires to save only those chosen in Christ – those who are called according to His purpose – those for whom Christ first desired to save! For this is love, that Christ laid his life down for his sheep. Did God desire that Christ lay his life down for those ordained unto goats?

Let’s go a bit further:

Let x = God’s decree

Let y = The reprobation of some

If y is a fact of x, then y is essential to x. If God (as God) desires x (and is aware that y is essential to x), then we may infer that at least in some sense God’s desire for y is entailed by His desire for x. (I’m speaking in terms of God as God in order to inform our discussion of God with orthodoxy, that we might avoid strict logical possibility that is not ontologically or broadly logical.)

Can God desire x while not desiring y? If not, then in what sense does God desire the converse of y (salvation of the reprobate) given a desire for x (a plan that includes the reprobation of some)?

Let’s briefly entertain three solutions.

1 and 2. Competing desires and unfulfillment:

Some well known Calvinists have posited that God desires the salvation of the reprobate but that he desires their damnation for his own glory even more. There’s something attractive about such a theory. It makes no apology for God positively desiring his decree, which includes his decree of reprobation. The downside is that it implies competing desires within the Godhead, a priority or ordering of yearnings to arrive at one decree. Although perhaps an improvement upon another well known Calvinist’s view that suggests in some sense God is “unfulfilled“ in his desire for the reprobate’s salvation, it nonetheless leaves God longing in making a trade-off. It’s an affront on God’s impassibility.

3. Abstracting the particular from the whole in light of distinguishing desires from pleasures:

We do well to distinguish desire from pleasure. If I desire to go to the doctor but going requires I get soaking wet in the rain, which ordinary I would not desire, then in one sense I do not desire to go out in the rain but in another sense I do. I do not want to go out in the rain if we consider going out in the rain as an abstraction from the overall plan of going to see the doctor. Yet I do desire to go out in the rain if getting drenched is necessary to fulfill my desire to see the doctor. Accordingly, it’s not foreign to our own experience to desire that which is not pleasurable. Context provides relevance.

The notion of abstracting particulars from the whole can be useful in this larger discussion. Although in isolation God does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked; God certainly takes pleasure in his overall decree, which he also desires. Moreover, that something isn’t pleasurable for God doesn’t mean it’s not desirable for God. God desired to punish his Son for our sins, though surely it was not pleasurable (though the overall decretive results are pleasurable). Likewise, God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but he would not have decreed reprobation without having truly desired it!

God desires all the components of his comprehensive plan because they serve his desired purpose. Notwithstanding, as a matter of an isolated instance, God takes no intrinsic pleasure in punishment. As an abstraction without purpose, judgement is neither desirable nor pleasurable. Yet in the context of all things – God, his plan, his glory etc., God takes the highest pleasure in himself and his decree, which includes his just indignation against the impenitent who have been ordained to judgement (Jude verse 4) for God’s own glory.

God’s decree is eternal, free and one. In isolation we can consider something evil, but God who transcends time and space ordains evil for good. As an abstraction, God does not desire sin and reprobation for the mere sake of sin and reprobation. Rather, God often desires that which displeases him, but always in service to his glory and the good of the elect. Indeed, God takes pleasure when the wicked turns from his ways, which entails God turning the wicked from his ways! Consequently, that God takes pleasure in all who turn does not imply that God desires all would turn. We may, therefore, say that although God does not take pleasure in in the particularity of reprobation, God nonetheless desires the individuality of reprobation because he takes pleasure in the unity and purpose of the divine decree. God desires the many in so much as it serves his desire for the one. The plurality and unity entailed by the decree are equally ultimate, a reflection of God in three Persons.

In closing:

Given man’s fallen condition, for God to desire a sinner’s rebirth, God would have to desire not that dead sinners give themselves life, but that He Himself would grant life to the dead. Does God desire to regenerate those he does not desire to irresistibly draw? Secondly, given that God does not have opposing desires or in any way go unfulfilled, we should maintain that God does not desire any providence that is outside his desired decreed. We too, following Christ, are to submit our wills to God’s ultimate plan and purpose (Matthew 16:23; 26:39). Notwithstanding, God never desires sin for the sake of sin itself but for the sake of his own glory in his unified plan of creation, fall, redemption and consummation.

Although God does not desire the salvation of the reprobate, we may declare with full confidence and without equivocation: “God came to save sinners, like you and like me. Come now, receive and rest Christ as he is freely offered to you this day and you will be saved!”

This class lays the groundwork for the corruption of the free offer offer of the gospel in the context of God’s three wills of decree, precept and wisdom.

This class focuses on the free offer.

 

A Robust Depravity – A Return To Calvinism

Total Depravity, as often depicted:

In the Reformed tradition, total depravity does not mean utter depravity. We often use the term total as a synonym for utter or for completely, so the notion of total depravity conjures up the idea that every human being is as bad as that person could possibly be… As wicked as Hitler was, we can still conceive of ways in which he could have been even more wicked than he actually was. So the idea of total in total depravity doesn’t mean that all human beings are as wicked as they can possibly be. It means that the fall was so serious that it affects the whole person…The will of man is no longer in its pristine state of moral power. The will, according to the New Testament, is now in bondage. We are enslaved to the evil impulses and desires of our hearts. The body, the mind, the will, the spirit—indeed, the whole person—have been infected by the power of sin.

R.C. Sproul

To change the metaphor, God’s reflection in us has become distorted like a face in a carnival mirror. Such is our depravity that every part of every person is warped by sin. Sin corrupts our hearts so that we set our affections on unholy desires. It corrupts our feelings so that we are in emotional turmoil. It corrupts our wills so that we will not choose the good. Our whole nature is corrupted by sin. This is what theologians mean when they speak of “total depravity”—not that we are as sinful as we could possibly be, but that we are sinners through and through.”

Phillip Ryken

These accounts of Total Depravity are somewhat typical. And although they might be technically correct and even mildly offensive to the world, there is considerably more to the story.

If Total Depravity is true, the rest of the Five Points is a mere footnote. Therefore, we do well to get the “T” of TULIP exhaustively correct. After all, our understanding of the glory of God’s grace is directly proportional to our understanding of man’s fallen condition.

Let’s look at this doctrine a bit more closely by considering whether that which we read in most contemporary explications of Total Depravity overlooks a profound insight that does not escape traditional Augustinians and those who haven’t adopted a Thomistic understanding of the extent of the fall, if not a form of libertarian Calvinism.

Indeed, many unbelievers lead impeccable lives, even engage in philanthropic work – even work that benefits the kingdom of God. Yet has that ever been a bone of contention or a misunderstanding of the doctrine of Total Depravity? What I find striking is that we rarely read what was understood by Augustine and echoed by Calvin, that all the “good” unregenerate man does is the result of one lust restraining another. In other words, what is absent from much of contemporary Calvinism is the idea that man’s so-called good, not wrought in regeneration, suits him for totally depraved and sinful reasons. So, the miserly man does not spend his money on licentious living, but the reason for such respectable refrain is attributable not to man not being as bad as he can possibly be, but to man’s sinful lust for money (if not also an insatiable desire for self-respect and the respect of others). But is that what we typically hear when this doctrine is explained? Or do we hear that we are in “emotional turmoil” and not as bad as we could possibly be (in this world)? Emotional turmoil? That the will is no longer pristine and even in bondage does not begin to address the profound moral and noetic affects of the fall or God’s use of sinful intentions to bring about “good” behavior. My hope is that a largely overlooked theological insight will become unearthed below, that we might recognize how watered down this doctrine has become.

God’s restraining power, a thing to behold:

God’s common goodness restrains fallen man through the providential employment of man’s sinful passions unto external good in conjunction with man being created with a conscience and in God’s likeness. What restrains the unregenerate isn’t the love of Christ or an internal work or grace but rather self-serving motives. Accordingly, I for one may not say that Hitler’s judgement will be more severe than any of the popes or many of Rome’s sacrificial nuns. How could I possibly know? Such speculation is beyond my pay grade. What I do know, however, is that Hitler was obviously evil; yet it was the popes, not Hitler, who for centuries promulgated doctrines of demons that paved the road from self-righteous indulgences to eternal torment. Some bad guys wear white hats, even a mitre at times. God judges righteous judgement taking all into account. I am finite and my judgement worthless, but what I do know is “all have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” Romans 3:12

When we say that “man isn’t as bad as he can possibly be,” or that “man can always do worse” or that “Hitler had some affection for his mother,” have we adequately reflected on the sinful restraining-motives that keep men and women respectable? We’ve internalized what fallen man does, but have we come to grips with why he doesn’t do much worse? (Pause)

When it’s said that man isn’t as bad as he can possibly be, do we appreciate that man is unable to do other than what God has decreed? Are we aware that in this world, contrary to common depictions of Total Depravity, that man is as bad as he can be both in a metaphysical sense as it relates to the intentions of the will but also in a decretive sense, which secures metaphysical intentions? By affirming without remainder that man isn’t as bad as he can possibly be, how do we avoid eclipsing that it is for sinful motives, decreed by God, that depraved men and women cannot desire to behave even more sinfully?

I’m afraid we’ve become sufficiently satisfied with the what with little theological inquiry into the why. A contributing factor to such complacency could be that the inroads of humanistic libertarian-Calvinism have been smoothly paved from classroom to pulpit, even unwittingly. Apropos, an adequate answer to why fallen men aren’t as bad as they “could possibly be” is absent among too many of the Reformed, at least it’s not understood in a way that reflects Old Princeton’s view of divine causal determinism, (which is compatible with free will, whereby God possesses free knowledge of counterfactual creaturely freedom.) Rather, the supposed answer to why is more recently indexed to man’s autonomous will that supposedly retains some heart for truth, beauty and goodness, consigning God to surmise free choices through a species of Middle Knowledge, or through the divine advantage of seeing the future by virtue of God’s atemporality through which all contingent free will possibilities are eternally present to the divine eye.

So, why is it that we so often hear that man is not as bad as he might possibly be? What is hoped to be communicated by the mantra? (Surely the aim is not to stake out philosophical ground through possible world semantics, for that would lead to the Reformed conclusion that man is as bad as he could possibly be in this actual world, just as God has determined!)

For one thing, such a sanguine view of the fall is based solely upon observable external works. Yet God judges internal motives and intentions of the heart, which too are decreed. Surely we would not say that “Satan isn’t as bad as he can be.” Yet why not say the same of man since God has man on the same restraining leash of providence as Satan? Satan doesn’t devour more than he does, but isn’t that because God has determined to restrain him? Is fallen man any different in this regard? Can either Satan or man do more evil than God has determined, or contrary to what either chooses according to evil intentions of which each volitional creature approves? In what sense can either do worse than they do?

Satan and image bearers:

Let’s be critical in our analyses. There are vast differences between man and Satan. Man is created in God’s likeness and when effectually called, recreated in Christ’s image. Another distinction is most men, most of the time, are restrained by conscience whereas Satan is not. Satan is evil personified. Satan might be constrained by his creaturely confusion but unlike man, not by conscience. Satan is confounded and utterly unconscionable. Whereas man can have natural affection, Satan has none. Man, though evil (per Jesus), doesn’t typically pursue that which intrinsically evil; whereas with Satan it is his ultimate delight. (Matthew 7:11; Luke 7:13) Indeed, there is a difference. Humans are not Devils. Notwithstanding, we have it on biblical authority that God’s providence restrains both the serpent and his offspring so that none can commit worse acts than he does, “for who can resist His will?” (Romans 9:19) That human creatures are providentially restrained through being God’s image bearers is certainly a distinction, but this is no relevant difference pertaining to the question of whether man or Satan can commit more heinous acts than God has determined, or whether anyone is as bad as he desires to be. Indeed, a most fascinating difference pertains to the means by which God restrains man, which includes through conscience; whereas with Satan conscience is not a means of restraint. Notwithstanding, man’s conscience is totally depraved. And although depraved consciences often produce good acts born out of personal glory and fear of consequence, never do creatures do so out of reverential fear, God’s glory or in a way that doesn’t earn divine condemnation.

Man’s natural affections are utterly self-serving and when judged by God will be found purely and totally sinful. Again, man desires not to sin more than he does, but only because his desire for self-restraint suits him for sinful motives. Yet to be thoroughgoing we must also maintain that God, through the intentional ordering of secondary causes, could have decreed to effectually move man to become increasingly hardened in heart, but not any more depraved in a fallen sense. Man’s depravity is indeed total. He is as bad as he desires to be and as bad as God will allow him to be. Indeed, man cannot possibly be worse than God has determined.

Jesus is the light that is given to all men who come into the world. (John 1:9) Yet the light in man will accuse him on the last day apart from repentance. Ultimately it is God alone who allows the candle to continue to flicker and not go out. God alone restrains the unregenerate man either directly or through secondary causes. God restrains man through conscience, for a time, but there will be no such restraining goodness in hell.

Lord over motive and sinful good:

When conscience and self-glorification restrains unconverted free moral agents from behaving worse than they otherwise would, such self-control is no less due to sinful motives than when one violates conscience and externally breaks God’s moral law. Even motive not to sin is sinful for the lost. The Reformers and the Divines captured this distinction by noting that outside regeneration in Christ and judicial pardon, man can do no spiritual good. Yet today, few reflect adequately upon that doctrine that even children recite.

The Reformed doctrine of Total Depravity grounded Van Til’s antithesis and unearths the need for a distinctly Reformed apologetic, but that’s for another day. For now we might merely consider that it is too unpleasant to think of our respectable friends and neighbors in this way. What we forgo, however, is standing in awe of God’s meticulous providence as it relates to man’s immoral intentions that often produce conforming choices. (We lose out on praising God in our appreciation of the delicious doctrine of concurrence, man’s dire plight, and our deep need for electing grace).

The Rich Man and Lazarus:

If the account of the rich man and Lazarus teaches us anything it is that unconverted man in his depravity will try to correct God forever – the living will listen and repent if only one is sent from the dead! In hell man’s depravity will be fully manifested. Man won’t become more fallen or spiritually dead, just like the converted don’t become progressively regenerate or increasingly alive in Christ. The blackness of man’s heart finally will be on full display in the life hereafter.

I hope we might see a bit more clearly that in contemporary Calvinism, although some distinguish degrees of depravity (total from utter), the accent is too often placed on “common grace” and how wonderful it is that the “unchurched” do such wonderful external law-works. Little to no reflection is given to God’s wisdom and power as he meticulously restrains the external evil works of the ungodly by their predetermined internal sinful passions for respectability and enlightened self-interest. God doesn’t just work externally evil acts for good (as most Calvinists recognize, citing Joseph and his brothers), but also God ordains sinfulgoodacts from those who are perishing, for his own glory and the benefit of the called according to his purpose. (We mustn’t confuse the two. The former contemplates sinful actions that are sinfully motivated; whereas the latter is more subtle as it relates to non-sinful actions that are also sinfully motivated.)

When we water down Total Depravity, grace doesn’t seem so amazing. In many respects, grace was more amazing 150 years ago among Arminians than it is described by many Calvinists today.

The profound truth of this doctrine is the very backdrop for the glory of God’s saving grace in Christ; yet do we confess the totality of Total Depravity? I believe we are in need of recouping the biblical teaching, that there is no mild antithesis between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. The antithesis is a deep-seated enmity inflicted by none other than God Himself. (Genesis 3:15) Man’s hatred of God often manifests itself in indifference, but that shouldn’t fool us. I suppose “splendid pagans“ aren’t really so splendid after all.