The following is an excerpt from a much longer article by John Piper. To read the rest, follow the link at the end of this excerpt.
When God took counsel with himself as to whether he should save all people, he consulted not only the truth of what he sees when looking through the narrow lens but also the larger truth of what he sees when all things are viewed through the wide-angle lens of his all-knowing wisdom.
If, as Calvinists say, God deems it wise and good to elect unconditionally some to salvation and not others, one may legitimately ask whether the offer of salvation to all is genuine. Is it made with heart? Does it come from real compassion? Is the willing that none perish a bona fide willing of love?
The way I would give an account of this is explained by Robert L. Dabney in an essay written over a hundred years ago. His treatment is very detailed and answers many objections that go beyond the limits of this chapter. I will simply give the essence of his solution which seems to me to be on the right track, though he, as well as I, would admit we do not "furnish an exhaustive explanation of this mystery of the divine will."
Dabney uses an analogy from the life of George Washington taken from Chief-Justice Marshall's Life of Washington. A certain Major André had jeopardized the safety of the young nation through "rash and unfortunate" treasonous acts. Marshall says of the death warrant, signed by Washington, "Perhaps on no occasion of his life did the commander-in-chief obey with more reluctance the stern mandates of duty and of policy." Dabney observes that Washington's compassion for André was "real and profound". He also had "plenary power to kill or to save alive." Why then did he sign the death warrant? Dabney explains, "Washington's volition to sign the death-warrant of André did not arise from the fact that his compassion was slight or feigned, but from the fact that it was rationally counterpoised by a complex of superior judgments . . . of wisdom, duty, patriotism, and moral indignation [the wide-angle lens]."
Dabney imagines a defender of André, hearing Washington say, "I do this with the deepest reluctance and pity." Then the defender says, "Since you are supreme in this matter, and have full bodily ability to throw down that pen, we shall know by your signing this warrant that your pity is hypocritical." Dabney responds to this by saying, "The petulance of this charge would have been equal to its folly. The pity was real, but was restrained by superior elements of motive. Washington had official and bodily power to discharge the criminal, but he had not the sanctions of his own wisdom and justice." The corresponding point in the case of divine election is that "the absence of volition in God to save does not necessarily imply the absence of compassion." God has "a true compassion, which is yet restrained, in the case of the . . . non-elect, by consistent and holy reasons, from taking the form of a volition to regenerate." God's infinite wisdom regulates his whole will and guides and harmonizes (not suppresses) all its active principles."
In other words, God has a real and deep compassion for perishing sinners. Jeremiah points to this reality in God's heart. In Lamentations 3:32-33 he speaks of the judgment that God has brought upon Jerusalem: "Though he causes grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve the sons of men." The word "willingly" translates a composite Hebrew word (milibo) which means literally "from his heart" (cf. 1 Kings 12:33). It appears that this is Jeremiah's way of saying that God does will the affliction that he caused, but he does not will it in the same way he wills compassion. The affliction did not come "from his heart." Jeremiah was trying, as we are, to come to terms with the way a sovereign God wills two different things, affliction and compassion.
God's expression of pity and his entreaties have heart in them. There is a genuine inclination in God's heart to spare those who have committed treason against his kingdom. But his motivation is complex, and not every true element in it rises to the level of effective choice. In his great and mysterious heart there are kinds of longings and desires that are real— they tell us something true about his character. Yet not all of these longings govern God's actions. He is governed by the depth of his wisdom expressed through a plan that no ordinary human deliberation would ever conceive (Romans 11:33-36; 1 Corinthians 2:9). There are holy and just reasons for why the affections of God's heart have the nature and intensity and proportion that they do.
Dabney is aware that several kinds of objections can be raised against the analogy of George Washington as it is applied to God. He admits that "no analogy can be perfect between the actions of a finite and the infinite intelligence and will." Yet I think he is right to say that the objections do not overthrow the essential truth that there can be, in a noble and great heart (even a divine heart), sincere compassion for a criminal that is nevertheless not set free.
Therefore I affirm with John 3:16 and 1 Timothy 2:4 that God loves the world with a deep compassion that desires the salvation of all men. Yet I also affirm that God has chosen from before the foundation of the world whom he will save from sin. Since not all people are saved we must choose whether we believe (with the Arminians) that God's will to save all people is restrained by his commitment to human self-determination or whether we believe (with the Calvinists) that God's will to save all people is restrained by his commitment to the glorification of his sovereign grace (Ephesians 1:6,12,14; Romans 9:22-23).
This decision should not be made on the basis of metaphysical assumptions about what we think human accountability requires. It should be made on the basis of what the scriptures teach. I do not find in the Bible that human beings have the ultimate power of self-determination. As far as I can tell it is a philosophical inference based on metaphysical presuppositions. On the other hand this book aims to show that the sovereignty of God's grace in salvation is taught in Scripture.
My contribution has simply been to show that God's will for all people to be saved is not at odds with the sovereignty of God's grace in election. That is, my answer to the above question about what restrains God's will to save all people is his supreme commitment to uphold and display the full range of his glory through the sovereign demonstration of his wrath and mercy for the enjoyment of his elect and believing people from every tribe and tongue and nation.
From Still Sovereign: Contemporary Perspectives on Election, Foreknowledge, and Grace. Thomas Schreiner/Bruce Ware, editors (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000). Desiring God highly recommends this excellent work. This article is now an appendix in The Pleasures of God: Meditations on God's Delight in Being God by John Piper (Sisters: Multnomah, 2 ed., 2000).
Used by permission of Baker Book House Company © 1995. All rights to this material are reserved. Materials are not to be distributed to other web locations for retrieval, published in other media, or mirrored at other sites without written permission from Baker Book House Company. www.bakerbooks.com
©2014 Desiring God Foundation. Used by Permission.
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in physical form, in its entirety or in unaltered excerpts, as long as you do not charge a fee. For posting online, please use only unaltered excerpts (not the content in its entirety) and provide a hyperlink to this page. For videos, please embed from the original source. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Desiring God.
Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By John Piper. ©2014 Desiring God Foundation. Website: desiringGod.org