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Is it God's will that all people be saved?

  • "This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, 4who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" 
    (1 Tim. 2:3-4).
  • "The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance" (2 Pet. 3:9).

     To begin with, the answer to the question "Is it God's will that all people be saved?" must be "Yes," because that it what the Bible says.  But does that mean that all will be saved?  The answer is obviously, "No."  
     To begin with, are God's desires always accomplished?  No, they are not.  God's desire is that people do what is right and not sin:  "To do righteousness and justice is desired by the Lord rather than sacrifice," (Prov. 21:3).  But people still sin in spite of God's stated desire.   Was it the desire of God that Adam and Eve rebel?  No.  Was it God's will that David commit adultery?  No. Yet, they did the very thing God did not want.  God desires that all people repent (Acts 17:30); but not all do. Clearly, God's will is not always done.  
     In theology, when examining this issue of God's will and His allowance of sin, we distinguish between what is called God's perfect will and His permissive will.  In His perfect will, He desires that all refrain from sin.  But in His permissive will, He allows people to sin.  In this sense, He has two wills regarding sin.  He desires that sin not exist because it is contrary to His nature, yet He wills that it does by making provision for it in His sovereign plan.  This does not mean that God brought sin into existence.  It means that He simply permitted it by allowing the fall.  Some may object and say that God does not will sin.  I agree.  However, this is not what I am saying.  I am saying that God wills the circumstances to exist that make sin possible but that He is not responsible for the sin that occurs.  
      When people sin, God uses it, and other sins, for His glory and purpose.  Please recall the account of Joseph's brothers who sinned by selling him into slavery and then lying to their father about it.  After many years when the family was reunited, Joseph said, "And as for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive" (Gen. 50:20).  God meant it for good?  How could that be if God is only passively allowing things to occur?  Here, Joseph states that God had a purpose in their sin.  Though God does not want sin, He made provision for it in His divine plan and even used the sinful deeds of people to accomplish His ultimate will.  Consider also how evil people conspired against Jesus to bring Him to death.  Was this God's plan that they do this?

  • "For truly in this city there were gathered together against Thy holy servant Jesus, whom Thou didst anoint, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, 28to do whatever Thy hand and Thy purpose predestined to occur," (Acts 4:27-28).

     Do you see how God had Herod and Pontius Pilate carry out His will?  Didn't they sin in condemning Jesus?  Yes!  Did God predestine the crucifixion to occur?  Yes!   But, this predestined occurrence required that people sin.  Did God make them sin?  No, for God does not tempt anyone (James 1:13).  Yet, God, in His sovereignty carried out His predestined will using their sin to accomplish His will.
     God is in control of history and it goes where He directs it.  Though He does not desire that people sin, He makes room it.  Since He is in absolute control, He could have made a world where people did not sin.  But since He did allow for it, then sin is, by default, in His plan.  God desires that no one sin, yet He made plans for its occurrence.  In other words, it is part of the plan of God.  If it weren't, it would not have occurred.  Therefore, we can plainly see that God can desire one thing and even ordain another by giving it a place in His sovereign plan.  Therefore, God can desire all be saved, but not ordain that all are by making provision in His plan for their damnation:  "The Lord has made everything for its own purpose, even the wicked for the day of evil," (Prov. 16:4).
     Again, simply because God states that He desires all people to be saved does not mean that His desire is going to be carried out.  But, we must ask why doesn't God elect all, predestine all, appoint all, or grant that all believe when He has the power to do so?  Is it because God is incapable of carrying out His will?  Or is there something greater than God at work?  Of course not.  God is in absolute control.  He can desire one thing (that people not sin), yet ordain another (plan that sin exist in the world). Likewise, God can desire that all be saved, yet not ordain that they are.

What Does God Want?

     Some will object to the claim that God sometimes wants one thing and yet arranges for another.  They would assert that this would be a contradiction.  But it is not since God has obviously done this.  Is it a contradiction when a judge wants to show mercy to all people but orders that criminals be punished?  Is it a contradiction when the judge says to a murderer, "You shall not murder!" but, according to the law, sentences him to death?  No.  Though the desire and action be different, there is no contradiction at all.  The judge is under obligation to keep the Law. . . and so is God.  He must remain true to His revealed Law which is a reflection of His divine character.  After all, God is just and must punish sin.
     To further illustrate the point that God can ordain something different than what He desires, please consider the scriptures below. 

What God Desires What God Arranges
  • "This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, 4who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth," (1 Tim. 2:3-4). 
  • "The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance,"
     (2 Pet. 3:9).
  • "just as it is written, 'God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes to see not and ears to hear not, down to this very day,'" (Rom. 11:8).
  • "And He was saying to them, "To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God; but those who are outside get everything in parables, 12in order that while seeing, they may see and not perceive; and while hearing, they may hear and not understand lest they return and be forgiven,"
    (Mark 4:11-12).

We can see that God says He does not wish any to perish.  But, we can also see that God gave Israel eyes to not see with and ears to not hear with.  Likewise, Jesus, who is God in flesh, purposely spoke to people in parables so they would not perceive and repent (Mark 4:11-12).  If God wants all saved in the sense that He arranges the best world for all so that all can have the opportunity to hear the truth and accept, then why would He arrange it so people were blinded and prevented from seeing?  Some will say that the people did this to themselves.  But that is not what the text says.  Clearly, God is the one performing the actions in preventing them to see.  In this case, He desires one thing and does another.
     Does God want pain and suffering in the world?  The obvious answer is no.  God created Adam and Eve and put them in a perfect world without pain, without suffering, and without loss.  That is God's desire because that is the way God made things in the beginning.  Yet, we have pain, suffering, and loss in the world.  Why?  Because that is the nature of our sinful system -- and God permitted it to occur according to His sovereign plan.  In fact, God causes some of the very things we believe He does not want.

  • "And the Lord said to him, 'Who has made man’s mouth? Or who makes him dumb or deaf, or seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?'" (Exodus 4:11).
  • "If a calamity occurs in a city has not the Lord done it?" (Amos 3:6).
  • "The One forming light and creating darkness, causing well-being and creating calamity; I am the Lord who does all these," (Isaiah 45:7).
  • "Who is there who speaks and it comes to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it? 38 Is it not from the mouth of the Most High That both good and ill go forth?" (Lam. 3:37-38). 
  • "The Lord has made everything for its own purpose, even the wicked for the day of evil," (Prov. 16:4).

     Can God want one thing and and yet specifically accomplish something else?  Obviously the answer is yes.  Let's look at some more verses.

What God Desires What God Arranges
  • "And the master said to the slave, ‘Go out into the highways and along the hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled," (Luke 14:23).
  • Therefore, just as the Holy Spirit says, “Today if you hear His voice, 8Do not harden your hearts as when they provoked Me, As in the day of trial in the wilderness," (Heb. 3:7).
  • "And for this reason God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they might believe what is false," (2 Thess. 2:11).
  • "And the Lord said to Moses, "When you go back to Egypt see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders which I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go," (Exodus 4:21).
  • "So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires," (Rom. 9:18).

  Why would God compel people to come into His house so that it can be filled and yet send a deluding influence upon the same people?  Are not those people in 2 Thessalonians, at the time of the Antichrist, the same people included in the highways and hedges?  Does not God compel all to enter into His house regardless of when and where they are in history?  Is it not God's desire to save all?  Yes it is.  Yet, God actually sends a deluding influence on people and hardens the hearts of others.  He desires one thing yet sometimes does another.  This is both challenging and fascinating.  Why would God do such a thing?  The answer lies in Scripture.  

God is in Control

      God is in control of all things and is bringing history to the prophetically determined destiny to which He has aimed it.  He hardens some and softens others.  He arranges things so that battles occur, people are destroyed, lives are changed, nations moved, and people saved.  All of this is done in accordance with His divine plan.  In fact, it is done because He has a divine plan.  Please consider the following.

  • "this Man, delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death," (Acts 2:23).
  • "For truly in this city there were gathered together against Thy holy servant Jesus, whom Thou didst anoint, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, 28to do whatever Thy hand and Thy purpose predestined to occur," (Acts 4:27-28).

     God did not cause the people who crucified Jesus to sin.  But, He sure used their sin and He predestined all of it to occur.  He used the sins of Herod and Pilate along with the Gentiles to do His divine will.  In fact, God anointed them to do what they did in order to carry out His purpose and His plan to bring His Son to the cross, to save sinners, and to bring glory to Himself.

God simply knew what they were going to do

     Some may object and say that God only knew what the evil people were going to do and simply used it.  But, that is not what the scripture says.  Besides, God has the ability to change the hearts of people:  "The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord; He turns it wherever He wishes" (Prov. 21:1).  This means that man's will is subject to God.  
     Then again, some may say that God must not violate people's freedom and will let them sin.  But in response, examine Gen. 20:6 where God kept Abimelech from sleeping with Abraham's wife:  "Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know that in the integrity of your heart you have done this, and I also kept you from sinning against Me; therefore I did not let you touch her."  God prevented Abimelech from sinning.  It was Abimelech's desire to enter Abraham's wife, yet God prevented it.  God can and does control people's hearts and actions so that they will accomplish His purpose.  He does this sovereignty and He does it without causing people to sin.  He can even make someone's heart hard for the purpose of carrying out His plan.

  • "But Sihon king of Heshbon was not willing for us to pass through his land; for the Lord your God hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate, in order to deliver him into your hand, as he is today," (Deut. 2:30).
    • The NIV, NKJV, RSV, KJV, and NASB all state that it was God who hardened Sihon's heart -- not strengthened it towards its tendency.
  • "For it was of the Lord to harden their hearts, to meet Israel in battle in order that he might utterly destroy them, that they might receive no mercy, but that he might destroy them, just as the Lord had commanded Moses," (Joshua 11:20).
    • The NIV says "it was the LORD himself who hardened their hearts."  The RSV says "it was the Lord's doing."

     In Deuteronomy 2, the Lord told Moses to tell Sihon King of Heshbon to let the Israelites pass.  But, we see that God deliberately hardened King Sihon's heart1 so that they could be delivered into Israel's hands and destroyed.  We see in Joshua, that it was "of God" to harden the Canaanites so that they might be destroyed.  Why?  Because God had a greater plan and purpose than showing them mercy.  What is that plan?  I believe God was arranging history to lead to the ultimate goal of Christ's crucifixion, resurrection, and return, along with the redemption of God's people.  This is the divine plan that God has ordained.  God is in control and He has a purpose that He has revealed in Scripture.  Please consider Rev. 17:16-17 as further support for this.

  • "And the ten horns which you saw, and the beast, these will hate the harlot and will make her desolate and naked, and will eat her flesh and will burn her up with fire. 17"For God has put it in their hearts to execute His purpose by having a common purpose, and by giving their kingdom to the beast, until the words of God should be fulfilled.

     In Revelation. 17:16, God put it into the hearts of people to rebel so that His prophetic word could be fulfilled.  God was, is, and will continue to control events in order to accomplish His divine plan.  He is bringing these people to a place of being destroyed and it isn't simply because they are rebellious.  It is because "God has put it in their hearts to execute His purpose . . .until the words of God should be fulfilled"!
But, some will claim that God cannot put such things in people's hearts -- in spite of the verses shown above.  They will quote scripture where God says He does not desire the death of the wicked and, therefore, could not be purposely doing such a thing.

  • "For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies," declares the Lord God. "Therefore, repent and live," (Ezekiel 18:32).
  • "Say to them, ‘As I live!’ declares the Lord God, ‘I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked . . . (Ezekiel 33:11).

     We clearly see that God does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked.  That is, it is not His desire that even the wicked die.  Yet, they do and to further complicate things, as we have seen in the scriptures above, He even hardens them(Exo. 4:24-25; Rom. 9:18), deludes them (2 Thess. 2:11), and puts it into their hearts to rebel (Deut. 2:30; Rev. 17:16-17). And if that weren't enough, take a look at the following:

  • "And it shall come about that as the Lord delighted over you to prosper you, and multiply you, so the Lord will delight over you to make you perish and destroy you. . ." (Deut. 28:63).
    • The word "delight" here is the word "soos" in Hebrew and it means to exult, rejoice, display joy.
  • "If one man sins against another, God will mediate for him; but if a man sins against the Lord, who can intercede for him?" But they would not listen to the voice of their father, for the Lord desired to put them to death," (1 Sam. 2:25).
    • The words "desired" here is the same Hebrew word, "chaphets," used in Ezekiel 18:32 and 33:11 ("pleasure") above.  It means "to delight in, take pleasure in, desire, be pleased with.  It was the sons of Eli who would not listen to their father.  Why?  Because the Lord desired to put them to death.  In other words, they would not listen because God desired to put them to death.
    • Likewise, the word "chaphets" occurs in Isaiah 53:10 where it says, "But the Lord was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief."  

     In the above verses you can see that God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked yet he delighted in destroying the wicked people.  Is this a contradiction?  No.  Because God has a purpose and a plan and He has the sovereign right to accomplish His will.  On one hand, He doesn't want people to suffer and die, yet on the other hand, He is delighted to carry out His divine plan which necessarily includes the death of the wicked because it is in accordance with the Law which He Himself has given us.  His divine plan will be accomplished.  This is further proof that God can desire one thing and bring another to pass.  

What does it all mean?

     So what do we make of this difficult issue that God can desire one thing and yet arrange circumstances, influence hearts, and govern people to the contrary?  I believe it is because there is something greater than God's desire that all should be saved; namely that God's divine plan and will be carried out for His glory and the salvation of the elect.
     Love and kindness are not the only aspects of God's glorious being.  He is also holy and righteous and has brought history through its course in order to reflect His great wisdom and justice as well as His love and mercy. Though God hates sin, He permits it for the greater glory of Himself and His plan.  In this, He desires all to be saved, but has not ordained that it be so because, according to the Law, He must punish sinners.
     The Law is a reflection of God's character.  Jesus said that out of the heart, the mouth speaks (Matt. 12:34).  God spoke and the Law came forth.  It is pure and perfect because it reflects God's character.  God has said that the soul that sins will die (Ezekiel 18:4), that sin causes a separation between God and man (Isaiah 59:2), that He must punish the sinner (Exodus 32:34; Hosea 9:9), and that His eyes are too pure to look upon evil (Hab. 1:13).  If someone sins, they must be punished because it is in accordance with God's Law.  That is why God can desire all to be saved, yet not ordain that all be saved because His Law cannot be broken.  What He is doing is remaining true to His character in both His justice and grace.  He is true to His justice because He rightfully judges people according to His Law.  He is true to His grace because He gives people the salvation they do not deserve.  In both, He is being consistent with His own character.  
     To that end, God has ordained all of history to flow to the predetermined end to which He has sent it.  He has His plan and it will be carried out.  He will bring glory to Himself.  He will judge the wicked.  He will save the believers.  This is why He is enduring with such patience the wicked people.

  • "What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? 23And He did so in order that He might make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory, 24 even us, whom He also called, not from among Jews only, but also from among Gentiles" (Rom. 9:22-24).

     God has worked all things after the counsel of His will (Eph. 1:5) and has engineered history to bring not only the cross as the means of redemption, but also the culmination of all things for the declaration of His own glory, righteousness, holiness, and character.  Sin will be shown to be utterly sinful and horrible.  The cross demonstrates His righteousness and grace and His sovereign will is carried out.  God is not simplistic and that He has a divine plan that we must truly seek to fathom if we are to rightly understand His word.  

1. The word "hardened" is the Hebrew "qashah."  According to the Strong's concordance, it means "to be hard, be severe, be fierce, be harsh, be difficult, make hard, make stubborn. . .The NIV says "God had made his spirit stubborn and his heart obstinate."  The NKJV says, "the Lord your God hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate."  The RSV says, "for the Lord your God hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate."   


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