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The Objections Addressed
Some object to the exegetical and theological conclusions above. On the basis of texts like Psalm 115:3, they argue that God’s desires must be coterminous with God’s decrees. That is, all that God desires he must decree. Or, all that God decrees exhausts all that God may desire. Accordingly, they impose one or more of the following limitations on the text.
God Desires the Good of the Israelites Only
John Gill denies that this text supports the notion that “God has vehemently desired the salvation of all mankind” on the grounds that “these words can be no proof since they only regard the people of Israel, who were the fewest of all people.”5
There are at least two problems with this line of reasoning.
First, even if it were true it would still establish the point that God may desire what he does not decree. Thus, one of the primary arguments against the well-meant offer is removed. For if God may desire the salvation of certain Israelites whose salvation he does not sovereignly bring to fruition, what objection can there be to the notion of God desiring the salvation of certain non-Israelite sinners whose salvation he does not sovereignly bring to pass?
Second, the apostle Paul sees sinful Israel as paradigmatic for sinful humanity (Rom 3:10-19) and interprets the unbelief of the wilderness generation as paradigmatic of the unbelief that characterizes all men—even professing believers (1 Cor 10:1-14). What’s more, the blessings God desired for Israel were never intended to terminate on them but to extend to all the nations (Gen 12:1-3; Matt 28:19-20; Luke 24:46-47; Acts 1:8; Rom 11:25-32; Gal 3:8-9, 16-29; Eph 2:11-22). Thus, Gill’s attempt to limit the application of Deuteronomy 5:29 to the Jews is gratuitous.
God Only Desires Their Temporal Welfare
It would seem that Gill himself sensed the weakness of his argument above since he quickly moved on to suggest alternative interpretations. “These words,” Gill avers, “do not express God’s desire of their eternal salvation, but only of their temporal good and welfare, and that of their posterity” (emphasis added). And why, one might ask, must we limit the blessing envisioned to the Israelite’s temporal welfare and exclude from its purview their eternal salvation? Gill replies,
For their eternal salvation was not to be obtained by works of righteousness done by them, by their fear or worship of God, or by their constant universal obedience to his commands.6
Once again, this alternative reading fails. Like the reading above, it falls short of accomplishing what Gill wishes it to accomplish. It fails to prove that God cannot desire what he does not decree. For in the case of the wilderness generation, God did not effectually secure their devotion and temporal welfare. He remained displeased with most of them and, as a result, prevented them from entering the land (1 Cor 10:1-5).
Moreover, as argued above, the “fear” envisioned is one that springs from a regenerate heart, assumes saving faith and repentance, and issues in evangelical obedience (Deut 6:4-6; 10:16; 30:6). Curiously, in his commentary on Deuteronomy, Gill seems to agree that the “fear” here depicted is the kind that assumes saving faith and repentance:
[This “fear of God”] is not naturally in the heart of man, it a gift of God, a part of the covenant of grace, is implanted in regeneration, and is no inconsiderable branch of it; it is opposed to pride, and is consistent with faith and joy, and is increased by views of the grace and goodness of God, and is a distinguishing character of a good man.7
Furthermore, Gills goes on to suggest that the blessing in view not only concerns the Israelite’s temporal welfare but also includes “their inward peace and spiritual welfare.”8
Thus, what Gill takes away with one hand he puts back with the other! Not surprisingly, he is forced to allow “that the saving work of conversion is here wished for” and to offer yet another interpretation.
God Only Seems to Their Desire Salvation
While Gill is willing to concede that the text portrays God as wishing for the salvation of these Israelites, he is not willing to ascribe a real desire to God in this case. “We are not to imagine,” he writes, “that such velleities [appetites] and wishes are strictly and properly in God; who speaks … by an anthropopathy, after the manner of men.”9
If asked why God would portray himself as desiring these Israelites’ if he did not really desire their salvation, Gill replies
Perhaps this mode of expression may be used on purpose to convince them of their want [lack] of such an heart, and of the necessity of such an one, and that God only could give it to them; and therefore they should apply to him for it…. Or, these words may be considered as an upbraiding of these people with the want [lack] of an heart to fear the Lord, and with want [lack] of ability to keep all his commandments, and that always, notwithstanding the vain boasts and empty resolutions they had just now made.10
Gill is not alone. In a similar fashion, John Calvin, when preaching on this text, asserted,
God, therefore, to make the people perceive how hard a matter it is to keep the law, says here, I would feign it were so…. True it is that here God speaks after the manner of men; for he needs no more but wish things done, all things are in his hand…. And why does he pretend to wish it in this text? It is because he speaks after the manner of men … to the end that when there is any mention made of walking in obedience to Godward, we should understand that it cannot be done without hardness, and that our wits should be wakened to apply ourselves earnestly to that study.11
At best, the text may imply the kind of behavior of which God approves in the abstract. Beyond that, its purpose is simply rhetorical, that is, to move the reader to conviction and/or action. In the words of Matthew Winzer, “Such expressions, then, are intended to instruct the hearers as to what their passion ought to be, not to indicate that God is characterized by such passions Himself.”12
(Part 3: Several rejoinders are offered to the “anthropopathic” interpretations represented above, and the conclusion is drawn.)
5 Emphasis his. The Cause of God and Truth (1735-37; Sovereign Grace Book Club, n.d.), 5.
7 An Exposition of the Old Testament (London: William Hill Collingridge, 1852), 718.
9 For the Cause of God and Truth, 5.
10 Ibid., 6.
11 Sermons on Deuteronomy: Facsimile of 1583 Edition (Banner of Truth, 1987), 260. (I have updated the English spelling and punctuation where necessary.) I’m not sure why Calvin feels constrained to interpret God’s words here as “feigning” or “pretending” to wish for the salvation of even the unbelieving Israelites since elsewhere he seems to take at face value the apostle Peter’s statement that God isn’t willing that any sinner should perish but that all should come to repentance. In Calvin’s words, “This is His wondrous love towards the human race, that He desires all men to be saved, and is prepared to bring even the perishing to safety. We must notice the order, that God is prepared to receive all men into repentance, so that none may perish.” The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews and The First and Second Epistles of St Peter, trans. William B. Johnston, in Calvin’s NT Commentaries, eds. David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance (Eerdmans, 1989), 364. See also his commentary on John 3:16 and Romans 2:4.
12 “Murray on the Free Offer: A Review” (accessed Oct 22, 2012).
Dr. Robert Gonzales (BA, MA, PhD, Bob Jones Univ.) has served as a pastor of four Reformed Baptist congregations and has been the Academic Dean and a professor of Reformed Baptist Seminary (Sacramento, CA) since 2005. He is the author of Where Sin Abounds: the Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis with Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives (Wipf & Stock, 2010) and has contributed to the Reformed Baptist Theological Review, The Founders Journal, and Westminster Theological Journal. He blogs at It is Written.