A Question for Calvinists: Is God Indifferent Toward the Nonelect?

Calvinists see the truth of the fact that it is, ultimately, God in eternity past who decides by His planning who will be saved. This in itself is a hard truth, with which I agree. But many Calvinists have arived at a false conclusion about the nature of God and the way He made His choices. Because God has chosen only some, an indifference in God is assumed, who seems to save some and not others merely because He can–and perhaps because the display of His sovereignty and justice is more important to Him than saving all whom He can.

To be fair, it must be pointed out that this assumption is hidden, and most Calvinists would object that Calvinism does not teach such a divine indifference. “Focus on His mercy,” they say, “since He didn’t have to save any.” But it cannot be escaped that He could have saved all, and one has to wonder why He did not. What does that say about the nature of God and His goodness? Such a question will be answered in one’s theology, whether or not one explicitly addresses it.

Turretin seems to have no problem with the ramifications. In his Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Fourth Topic, seventeenth question (“Can there be attributed to God any conditional will, or universal purpose of pitying the whole human race fallen in sin, of destinating Christ as Mediator to each and all, and of calling them all to a saving participation of his benefits? We deny“), he explains…

Section XVIII:

…He who in earnest wills an end to anyone also wills and bestows (as far as he can) the means necessary to obtain it; especially if he has them all in his power, and they depend upon him alone. Therefore if God wills by a general will the salvation of each and every man, he ought to will also the means conducive to salvation: such as the preaching of the word, faith, repentance–without which salvation cannot be obtained. But he neither wills nor bestows (as far as he can) these upon innumerable persons (to whom he grants neither the preaching of the word nor the gift of faith)…

Section XXIX:

The love treated in Jn. 3:16 when it is said that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son,” cannot be universal towards each and every one, but special towards a few. (1) It treats of the supreme and intense love of God (a greater than which is not and cannot be conceived) towards those for whom he gave his only begotten. This is evident both from the intensive (epitatike) particle houtos (which has great weight here) and from the thing itself. For as no one can have a greater love than to lay down his life for his friends (Jn. 15:13), so no greater love can be found than that by which God (when men were yet enemies) delivered his own Son to death for them. And as Abraham could not more evidently prove his piety to God than by offering up his son as a sacrifice, so God could not more illustriously demonstrate his love to men than by giving up his Son to them as a propitiatory victim (hilastiken). (2) The love by which God gave his Son draws after itself all other things necessary to salvation: “For he that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?” (Rom. 8:32). But not upon each and every one, rather upon the elect alone, he bestows all things with Christ. (3) Therefore the end of that love which God intends is the salvation of those whom he pursues with such love; hence he adds, “For God sent not his son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved” (Jn. 3:17). If therefore God sent Christ for that end (that through him the world might be saved), he must either have failed of his end or the world must necessarily be saved in fact. However it is certain that not the whole world, but only those chosen out of the world are saved; therefore to them properly this love has reference. Nor can it be conceived if a universal love is here understood, how such and so great love (which is by far the cause of the greatest and most excellent good, viz., the mission of Christ) can consist with the hatred of innumerable persons whom he willed to pass by and ordain to damnation (to whom he never has revealed either his Son or willed to bestow faith, without which it is set forth in vain). Nor can it be conceived how this love of God can be so greatly commended here which yet remains void and inefficacious on account of the defect of subjective grace, which God has determined to deny.

Turretin was addressing universalism, but he was also addressing those who hold to unconditional election but desire to vindicate the goodness of God, such that He in some less efficacious sense wills even the nonelect to be saved, and thus provides a conditional decree so that their destruction is fully on their own heads and not attributable to a lack of goodness in God. Turretin answers this in no uncertain terms, saying that if God earnestly wanted them to be saved, then He would give them all that they need to be saved, including gifting them with faith. Since He does not give them all that they need, including faith, then He does not earnestly want them to be saved. He further explains that the love of God in John 3:16 is not a love for everyone in the world, but only a love for the elect.

Those Calvinists who are well-represented by men like Turretin miss the complexity in God’s will on this one point, such that He might indeed have a strong motivation to save all, but which is constrained in some way by the necessities of justice. On other points, it is well accepted among Calvinists that God’s will is not simple. Is it God’s will for a man to sin? If God’s will is simple, then the answer should be a simple yes or no. But the Calvinist must give a two-part answer, to which I agree: God hates sin and it is never His will from an immediate, moral perspective; however, all events (even sins) are part of God’s eternal plan, and are thus foreordained and part of His will. How could the same God who hates sin will for sin to occur? The answer is that He allows what is repugnant to His nature in order to accomplish what is to His greatest glory. Jesus was sinfully betrayed, falsely accused, unrighteously tried and executed–yet, such atrocious sin was planned by God from the beginning. God’s strong hatred for sin is constrained by the exigencies of what He wants to accomplish. The same principle should be applied to God’s desire for the salvation of the nonelect. Why assume that since God ultimately only saves some, then God had no desire to save any more? The logical result of that assumption is that God does not love the reprobated masses in such a way as to desire their salvation. If that is not indifference to their destruction, then the meaning of the word escapes me.

It is not necessary for God to have been indifferent to choose to save only some and not all. The God who calls all men everywhere to repent is the same God who in eternity past made His plan and chose to save only some. How can the same God have done that? It only makes biblical sense if there was some reason why all could not be saved–some reason why the God who is love would not plan to save all. It cannot be true that the God who is so loving could choose to lose so many merely out of indifference.

The unusual Calvinist, Robert L. Dabney, is enlightening on this issue. He writes, in his Systematic Theology, chap. 35:

The manner in which a volition which dates from eternity, subsists in the infinite mind, is doubtless, in many respects, inscrutable to us. But since God has told us that we are made in His image, we may safely follow the Scriptural representations, which describe God’s volition as having their rational relation to subjective motive; somewhat as in man, when he wills aright. For, a motiveless volition cannot but appear to us as devoid both of character and of wisdom. We add, that while God “has no parts nor passions,” He has told us that He has active principles, which, while free from all agitation, ebb and flow, and mutation, are related in their superior measure to man’s rational affections. These active principles in God, or passionless affections, are all absolutely holy and good. Last, God’s will is also regulated by infinite wisdom. Now, in man, every rational volition is prompted by a motive, which is in every case, complex to this degree, at least that it involves some active appetency of the will and some prevalent judgment of the intelligence. And every wise volition is the result of virtual or formal deliberation, in which one element of motive is weighed in relation to another, and the elements which appear superior in the judgment of the intelligence, preponderate and regulate the volition. Hence, the wise man’s volition is often far from being the expression of every conception and affection present in his consciousness at the time, but it is often reached by holding one of these elements of possible motive in check, at the dictate of a more controlling one. For instance a philanthropic man meets a distressed and destitute person. The good man is distinctly conscious in himself of a movement of sympathy tending towards a volition to give the sufferer money. But he remembers that he has expressly promised all the money now in his possession, to be paid this very day to a just creditor. The good man bethinks himself, that he “ought to be just before he is generous,” and conscience and wisdom counterpoise the impulse of sympathy; so that it does not form the deliberate volition to give alms. But the sympathy exists, and it is not inconsistent to give other expression to it. We must not ascribe to that God whose omniscience is, from eternity, one infinite, all embracing intuition, and whose volition is as eternal as His being, any expenditure of time in any process of deliberation, nor any temporary hesitancy or uncertainty, nor any agitating struggle of feeling against feeling. But there must be a residuum of meaning in the Scripture representations of His affections, after we have guarded ourselves duly against the anthropopathic forms of their expression. Hence, we ought to believe, that in some ineffable way, God’s volition, seeing they are supremely wise, and profound, and right, do have that relation to all His subjective motives, digested by wisdom and holiness into the consistent combination, the finite counterpart of which constitutes the rightness and wisdom of human volition. I claim, while exercising the diffidence proper to so sacred a matter, that this conclusion bears us out at least so far. That, as in a wise man, so much more in a wise God, His volition, or express purpose, is the result of a digest, not of one, but of all the principles and considerations bearing on the case. Hence it follows, that there may be in God an active principle felt by Him and yet not expressed in His executive volition in a given case, because counterpoised by other elements of motive, which His holy omniscience judges ought to be prevalent. Now, I urge the practical question. Why may not God consistently give Some other expression to this active principle, really and sincerely felt towards the object, though His sovereign wisdom judges it not proper to express it in volition? To return to the instance from which we set out. I assert that it is entirely natural and reasonable for the benevolent man to say to the destitute person.”I am sorry for you, though I give you no alms.” The ready objection will be, “that my parallel does not hold, because the kind man is not omnipotent, while God is. God could not consistently speak thus, while withholding alms, because he could create the additional money at will.” This is more ready than solid. It assumes that God’s omniscience cannot see any ground, save the lack of physical ability or power, why it may not be best to refrain from creating the additional money. Let the student search and see, he will find that this preposterous and presumptuous assumption is the implied premise of the objection. In fact, my parallel is a fair one in the main point. This benevolent man is not prevented from giving the alms by any physical compulsion. If he diverts a part of the money in hand from the creditor to the destitute man, the creditor will visit no penalty on him. He simply feels bound by his conscience. That is, the superior principles of reason and morality are regulative of his action, counterpoising the amiable but less imperative principle of sympathy, in this case. Yet the verbal expression of sympathy in this case may be natural, sincere, and proper. God is not restrained by lack of physical omnipotence from creating on the spot the additional money for the alms, but He may be actually restrained by some consideration known to His omniscience which shows that it is not on the whole best to resort to the expedient of creating the money for the alms, and that rational consideration may be just as decisive in an all wise mind, and properly as decisive as a conscious impotency to create money in a man’s.

Dr. Dabney goes on to point to the fact that the “Scriptures ascribe to God pity toward the lost,” and he says that Calvin and Turretin were “afraid lest God’s principle of compassion (not purpose of rescue), towards sinners non elect, should find any expression, and thus mar the symmetry of their logic”:

This view has a great advantage in that it reveals and enables us to receive those precious declarations of Scripture which declare the compassion of God towards even lost sinners. The glory of these representations is that they show us God’s benevolence as an infinite attribute, like all His other perfection’s. Even where it is rationally restrained, it exists. The fact that there is a lost order of angels, and that there are persons in our guilty race, who are objects of God’s decree of preterition, does not arise from any stint or failure of this infinite benevolence. It is as infinite, viewed as it qualifies God’s nature only as though He had given expression to it in the salvation of all the devils and lost men. We can now receive, without any abatement, such blessed declarations as Ps. 81:13; Ezek. 18:32; Luke 19:41, 42. We have no occasion for such questionable, and even perilous exegesis, as even Calvin and Turrettin feel themselves constrained to apply to the last. Afraid lest God’s principle of compassion (not purpose of rescue), towards sinners non elect, should find any expression, and thus mar the symmetry of their logic, they say that it was not Messiah the God man and Mediator, who wept over reprobate Jerusalem; but only the humanity of Jesus, our pattern. I ask. Is it competent to a mere humanity to say, “How often would I have gathered your children?” And to pronounce a final doom, “Your house is left unto you desolate?” The Calvinist should have paused, when he found himself wresting these Scriptures from the same point of view adopted by the ultra Arminian. But this is not the first time we have seen “extremes meet.” Thus argues the Arminian, ” Since God is sovereign and omnipotent, if He has a propension, He indulges it, of course, in volition and action. Therefore, as He declares He had a propension of pity towards contumacious Israel, I conclude that He also had a volition to redeem them, and that He did whatever omnipotence could do against the obstinate contingency of their wills. Here then, I find the bulwark of my doctrine, that even omnipotence cannot certainly determine a free will.” And thus argues the ultra Calvinist. “Since God is sovereign and omnipotent, if He has any propension, He indulges it, of course, in volition and action. But if He had willed to convert reprobate Israel, He would infallibly have succeeded. Therefore He never had any propension of pity at all towards them.” And so this reasoner sets himself to explain away, by unscrupulous exegesis, the most precious revelations of God’s nature! Should not this fact, that two opposite conclusions are thus drawn from the same premises have suggested error in the premises? And the error of both extremists is just here. It is not true that if God has an active principle looking towards a given object, He will always express it in volition and action. This, as I have shown, is no more true of God than of a righteous and wise man. And as the good man, who was touched with a case of destitution, and yet determined that it was his duty not to use the money he had in giving alms, might consistently express what he truly felt of pity, by a kind word; so God consistently reveals the principle of compassion as to those whom, for wise reasons, He is determined not to save. We know that God’s omnipotence surely accomplishes every purpose of His grace. Hence, we know that He did not purposely design Christ’s sacrifice to effect the redemption of any others than the elect. But we hold it perfectly consistent with this truth, that the expiation of Christ for sin expiation of infinite value and universal fitness should be held forth to the whole world, elect and non elect, as a manifestation of the benevolence of God’s nature. God here exhibits a provision which is so related to the sin of the race, that by it, all those obstacles to every sinner’sreturn to his love, which his guilt and the law presents, are ready to be taken out of the way. But in every sinner, another class of obstacles exists; those, namely, arising out of the sinner’s own depraved will. As to the elect, God takes these obstacles also out of the way, by His omnipotent calling, in pursuance of the covenant of redemption made with, and fulfilled for them by their Mediator. As to the non elect, God has judged it best not to take this class of obstacles out of the way, the men therefore go on to indulge their own will in neglecting or rejecting Christ.

If we look to the Old Testament and see how God dealt with Israel’s idolatry, we find examples of God saving only a remnant. Sin must have consequences, even for the race of man. If mankind had not sinned in Eden, then all men would remain in God’s blessed approval—all men would be elect and none would be lost. But because we did sin in Eden, then God’s eternal plan necessarily elected only some and not all. Any individual who perishes in punished only for his own sin; but the fact that so many will perish is the consequence of the sin of the race in Adam. We do not need to fully understand the mysteries of God’s nature to see that this is the result—that God’s grace is limited in its application to the race, such that not all will be saved even though all could have been saved. Either such exigencies of God’s justice have bearing on how many will be saved, or an indifference in God’s nature is the only valid conclusion.

Only because God knew that the race would sin did He choose an elect that did not include all of humanity. Only because God so loved humanity did He choose any to be saved. There really is nothing special about the few that He has chosen when compared to the rest, as we are members of humanity just like the rest, fallen and unworthy. Because God so loves humanity, and because He has chosen to save some, then He is able to pour out His love for humanity in a special way on those whom He has chosen. Though He has a love for all humanity, He is not able to pour it out on the rest by saving them, though it is manifested in temporal ways, such as general blessings, and in His revelations of Himself to even the nonelect. Even the fact that they perish due not to God’s indifference in the temporal but only to their own unwillingness to come is itself a limited manifestation of the love of God (since it would be much different if God were not willing no matter how willing the nonelect might be).

How we see the nature and personality of God in His planning in eternity past has consequences in how we see His nature and personality in dealing with humanity today. If we assume an indifference in His eternal planning, then we will see an exclusivity in His plan and grace, such that He is only interested in saving the elect, He only provides atonement for the elect, His gospel is intended only for the elect, and no one else has any real opportunity or call of God. However, if we see God as loving all men but only able to save a remnant while remaining true to justice, then we can see a God who today–in a real but temporal sense–does want all men to be saved and none to perish, and who has provided a salvation and atoning sacrifice that is able to save any and all men if they would but come.

God is loving, full of goodness and mercy, and willing to respond to any in the temporal perspective precisely because He has the same nature in the eternal perspective. An indifference need not be assumed as to why God chose only a few rather than all. If it is true that God would have saved all if that were possible, but was unable to save all because His own justice puts limits on the grace that He pours on the race, then we have a different picture of God–one who loved all mankind from eternity past, and though He planned for so many to perish, He did not do so out of indifference or lack of love. He is a God who is loving, full of goodness, and willing to respond to any.

The fact is that God works and wills and relates from two perspectives, that of His eternal plan and that of the immediate temporal perspective. Just as it is never God’s will from a temporal perspective for a man to sin, and yet He allows it from an eternal perspective as part of His plan, it is also true that it is never God’s will from a temporal perspective for men to perish in sin, though He allows it from His eternal plan’s perspective. He allows what is abhorrent to His nature in order to use these things for His greater purposes, according to His plan. While it is true that God has sovereignly chosen from eternity past whom He will save, it is just as true that God (from the temporal perspective) “is not willing that anyone perish, but that all come to repentance,” and thus, He “calls all men everywhere to repent,” because He “has no pleasure in the death of the wicked.”

It is exactly this two-fold aspect of God’s will and nature that is reflected in the cross! THROUGH the cross, God will save only those whom He has chosen from eternity past; but TO the cross ALL men can be freely implored to come, with the guarantee that God will save any man if he but will be willing to humble himself in true repentant faith. Thus, the cross displays BOTH God’s sovereign will to carry out His eternal plan, and God’s unchangeable goodness, love, and mercy in response to any who are willing to come. The display of BOTH are necessary to God’s glory, and God’s glory is the ultimate reason for everything, including the cross. Therefore, it was necessary for more than the eternal purpose of God’s salvation of the elect to be displayed by Christ’s sacrifice; it was necessary that God’s goodness, love and mercy be displayed also–that God be shown as the One who “will in no way cast out all those who come to Him.” No matter how unwilling the nonelect are, God is available if they would but come.

Ken Hamrick

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6 Responses to A Question for Calvinists: Is God Indifferent Toward the Nonelect?

  1. I like the last paragraph in this article. I’m a non-calvinist but absolutely God has a two-fold aspect that I’m not sure Calvinists appreciate.

  2. Ken Hamrick says:

    Thanks, Jeremy. It’s good to hear from you again. You and I first met on CARM, didn’t we?

  3. Tony says:

    “Though He has a love for all humanity, He is not able to pour it out on the rest by saving them, though it is manifested in temporal ways, such as general blessings, and in His revelations of Himself to even the nonelect. ”
    oh so then what is the point of giving water to a dead tree? the “love” of your God for reprobates like me is laughable , he is just taunting the reprobate with something they will never get

  4. Ken Hamrick says:

    Who told you that you are a reprobate? God’s love is true, and He will save anyone willing to come to Christ in humble, repentant belief. Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you, too, will be saved. He does not offer water to dead trees, but life to dead trees—and all who accept what He offers will be brought to life.

  5. Tony says:

    your idea of “common grace” IS basically offering water to dead trees, and your God only “saves” people after he chooses to elect them to heaven

  6. Ken Hamrick says:

    I disagree, Tony. Your criticism may apply to standard Calvinists, but I understand God’s grace to be much more immanent than that. God saves all who are willing to come, and would even save the hypothetical nonelect man who comes to Him in genuine, repentant, submissive faith. Election in eternity past was unconditional, but salvation in this temporal world is indeed conditional upon the choice to believe. The only thing that keeps men from getting saved is their own unwillingness to believe what God has revealed.

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