The 3rd Rail: Can a Loving God Determine to Save So Few?

This is the last post in this series, and concludes my attempt to provide a compelling articulation for the middle ground on which so many Southern Baptists stand—holding that God is the ultimate Determiner of destinies and that men have free will in the matter (but without going to the lengths of Calvinism or Traditionalism).


An important question, which goes to the heart of the Calvinism debate, was asked by Dr. Eric Hankins, at the 2017 Connect 316 Banquet:

On Calvinist principles, God could have foreordained the salvation of all just as easily, just as righteously, as He foreordained the salvation of only some. What else can such an act be called except “evil”? This is not a misrepresentation of Calvinism. I see no way around this implication. If there is one, Southern Baptists are going to need to hear it.[1]

There is a Biblical solution to this supposed implication, but it’s found only in the middle view. As we’ve already seen in this series, in issue after issue, Calvinists and Traditionalists have chosen a divisive simplicity over a deeper complexity. Any time that a doctrine is stripped of an inherent complexity by two opposing arguments, the dispute will not end until the complexity is restored. This issue is no different.

The Complexity in God’s Will
Both sides agree that if God determines the destinies of men, He cannot earnestly desire to save all without bringing all to saving faith. One side concludes that God must not earnestly desire the salvation of all, while the other side concludes that God must not determine the destinies of men. But the premise is faulty. It is not the wisdom of God but the reasoning of men that says that God cannot unconditionally elect some and call upon all to believe with an earnest desire that they come[2]. Calvinists and Traditionalists share an oversimplified assessment.

They err in denying to God the complexity that man has even in himself. Just as the decisions of men often entail the weighing of complex motivations and factors, the decisions of God can be complex, involving exigencies in His nature and plan that are beyond our understanding. This complexity in God’s will has long been recognized in other areas. How could the same God who hates sin will for sin to occur, as in Jesus’ crucifixion?

God Accepts What is Repugnant in Order to Accomplish His Plan
God allows what He hates in order to accomplish what is to His greatest glory. Jesus was sinfully betrayed, falsely accused, wrongly tried and executed—yet, such atrocious sin was planned by God. God’s absolute hatred for sin is constrained by what He wants to accomplish. The same principle should be understood regarding God’s desire for the salvation of the nonelect. It is not necessarily true that if God earnestly desired the salvation of all (and was in control of whom is brought to faith) then all would be brought to faith—any more than it is true that if God earnestly desired righteousness, He would not incorporate any sin into His plan. God’s will is complex, and the utter repugnance of any man perishing—or sinning—is permitted only in order to accomplish His greater purposes.

The nineteenth-century Calvinist, Robert Dabney, points out that the “Scriptures ascribe to God pity toward the lost,” and he dares to say that Calvin and Turretin were “afraid lest God’s principle of compassion… towards sinners non elect, should find any expression, and thus mar the symmetry of their logic”[3]. That is a big problem for Calvinists and those of the opposite side: their logic paints them into symmetrical corners. Contradicting both sides, Dabney explains that God can indeed have an “active principle” of compassion toward the nonelect and still have reasons to not act on that desire (underscore mine):

…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… 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.[4]

God can still have sympathy and compassion—expressions of His love—for the nonelect, while not determining for them a heaven-bound destiny, if more pressing concerns are present. Can we know that such concerns cannot exist? Ought we to be so sure that we even dare to risk the blasphemy of calling God “evil” if He does what is disagreeable in the matter? May our leaders never be so rash!

The Complexity in Justice
If we look to the Bible and see how God dealt with Israel’s idolatry and unbelief, we find examples of God saving only a remnant.

Isa. 10: 20-21 ESV
20 In that day the remnant of Israel and the survivors of the house of Jacob will no more lean on him who struck them, but will lean on the LORD, the Holy One of Israel, in truth. 21 A remnant will return, the remnant of Jacob, to the mighty God.

Rom. 11: 2-5 ESV
2 God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he appeals to God against Israel? 3 “Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.” 4 But what is God’s reply to him? “I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” 5 So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace.

Sin must have consequences, even for the race of man. If mankind had not sinned in Eden, all men would remain in God’s blessing—all would be elect. But because we did sin in Eden, God’s eternal plan took into account sin’s awful consequences and elected only some.

Matt. 7: 13-14 ESV
13 “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.

Many think that the cross of Christ forever removed all the concerns of justice standing in the way of whom will be saved. But the cross applies to individuals, and not to the race as a whole. Any man, if he be willing to cast himself in faith on the substitutionary death of the Savior, can have his sins washed away. But Christ’s blood is for each man who comes, and was never intended to be applied to the race as a race—else the whole race would be saved. Each and every man—even the nonelect if they would be willing—can find salvation in Christ; however, the race will only respond positively toward the gospel in proportion to the working of God’s grace within the world. If God’s grace were absent from the world, none would believe. In some mysterious way that only God can measure, His grace is limited in how He works with the race to save men—limited due to the necessity for the race as a race to bear certain consequences for our sin in Adam.

These consequences also include all those things that remain on us even after being saved, such as living by the sweat of our brow, being vulnerable to disease and injury, having an imperfect mind and body, having a sin nature, and being subject to physical death. Christ saves us from the eternal penalty of our sins as an individual, but the temporal penalties that fall on the race as a race will continue until the end. Then, as the last sinner is removed from this world, every effect of sin will also be removed, and the old heaven and earth will give way to the new.

Any individual who perishes dies 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 don’t need to fully understand the mysteries of God’s nature to see that this is the result—we only need look around us.

The Complexity in God’s Love
Some conclude that since it is out of God’s love that He saves, and since He saves only some, then God’s “saving love” is a “distinguishing” love. John Murray states:

…The Scripture informs us that this love of God from which the atonement flows and of which it is the expression is a love that is distinguishing… The love of God from which the atonement springs is not a distinctionless love; it is a love that elects and predestinates.[5]

Such a conclusion does not follow. Merely because God elected only some does not mean that it was out of His love that He limited salvation. The very same God who chooses to save also chooses to let others perish. However, there are different reasons for each, and the false conclusion that both flow from the love of God is a monstrous portrayal. The decision to let many perish does not come from any limiting aspect of His love, but from other exigencies of His nature relating to justice and glory.

God’s love for men as men is logically prior to His choosing of an elect; and election is logically prior to His special love for the elect. 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’s really nothing special about the few He has chosen, as we are humans just like the rest, fallen and unworthy. Because God so loves humanity, and because He has chosen to save some, He is able to pour out His love for humanity in a special way on those whom He has chosen.

The Scriptures represent God as loving the world, and not merely loving the elect. Andrew Fuller states:

It appears to me an incontrovertible fact that God is represented in his word as exercising goodness, mercy, kindness, long-suffering, and even love towards men as men. The bounties of Providence are described as flowing from kindness and mercy; and this his kindness and mercy is held up as an example for us to love our enemies, Matt. v. 44, 45; Luke vi. 35, 36.[6]

Although 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 the universal warrant to believe and be saved. Even the fact that they perish due only to their own unwillingness is a 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).

Man’s Being Engenders God’s Love
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—in a real but temporal sense—does not want any to perish, and who has provided an atoning sacrifice that is able to save all men if they would but come.[7]

1 John 4: 8-11 ESV
8 Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.

God is loving, full of goodness and mercy, and willing to respond to any. An indifference need not be assumed as to why God chose only a few. If it is true that God would have saved all if that were feasible, but was unable to save all and still be true to justice, then we have a different picture than that so bleakly painted by Drs. Hankins and Murray.

God didn’t create men and simply choose some to love, passing over the rest. Instead, because God wanted to create men whom He would love, He created men in such a way that their being would engender His love. This is not to say that men have anything in them that merits God’s love, but only that it’s natural for God to love men simply because we’re  made in His image—spiritual beings with a spiritual consciousness, with love, emotions, hopes, dreams, etc. He chose us not because He loved us more than the others, but because He loved all humanity so much that He wanted to save some rather than let all perish.

Our individuality is only a small part of who we are. Most of me can be found in every other human—that which differentiates is only a small slice of our being. Does God love all of my being, or only that small part that differentiates me from others? If the latter, then God does not love me completely; but, if God loves my whole being, He must love in me what is also found in others. If God loves all of me, He must love all of humanity.

Is this not the nature of godly love? When we love strangers with the love of God, do we love them merely for their individuality (as opposed to others whom we do not love), or do we love them for their humanity? It is a lesser love that selects the individuality of some at the expense of others. Of course, there is a proper place in our human world for selective love: one man cannot love and marry every woman in the world. But the deepest, truest possible love is agape—that kind of love that cannot help but love every “neighbor” as oneself. How can we love our enemies, as God commands, but to see within them what we see within ourselves? Because we are made in His image as a reflection of Him, there is a real sense in which God sees within us what He sees within Himself.

Putting it all Together
We need to keep in mind, however, that God’s love is not the end of the matter. God’s plan was ultimately for His glory. To glorify God is to reveal His nature and character so that He may be seen for what He really is. It’s for His glory that sin is permitted. It’s for His glory that Christ died for sinners on the cross. It’s for God’s glory that many will be saved but many lost. All of creation serves that purpose. Christ on a cross, the incarnate Son of God sent from heaven to be sacrificed to save men, was the glorious reason for the entire universe to be created.

While it’s true that God has sovereignly chosen from eternity past whom He will save, it’s 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’s exactly this two-fold aspect of God’s will and nature that’s reflected in the cross! Through the cross, God will save only those whom He’s 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 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. Therefore, it was necessary 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.

The Complexity in Election
Since God’s love is for all men if it is for any, then why did He choose whom He chose? I submit that God chose the plan that would bring Him the greatest glory. A plan with no sin, in which all would be elect, would not bring Him the same glory that a plan incorporating sin would bring. A Savior dying, and not just a Savior reigning, glorifies God far more. Just so, a remnant redeemed out of a sin-racked world will bring Him more glory than a divinely preserved, self-holy humanity in a world that’s never known sin. There should be no doubt that this is true, since God has indisputably chosen the former over the latter. As abhorrent to God’s nature as it is, accepting certain unavoidable consequences of sin was deemed to be worth the awful price, considering what was to be gained.

I also submit that we were chosen as elect of God not due to any specialness, but due to how we fit into the complex circumstances of the world within the plan God has chosen, with sin’s immanent consequences operating in balance with God’s grace—all under the providence of God’s wisdom and power in carrying out this plan. Since the introduction of sin into God’s plan would naturally limit the number who would be saved, and since God loves all men as men, then He could have chosen any subset of humanity with both equal love and equal loss. Given the necessity of sin to God’s plan, and the necessity of sin’s consequences, the plan in which these few comprise the elect is the plan that will result in the greatest glory for God.

In this understanding, God’s will and plan are being accomplished through the free will of men[8], with sin’s consequences taking its toll on the race. And while sin’s damage seems to operate in opposition to God’s grace and desire to save all, its consequences proceed from the just demands of God’s nature. And while men’s destinies have, to an extent, been made subject to the circumstances of the world, these circumstances are fully within God’s providence; and the men who brought sin into the world’s circumstances by their participative sin in Adam have no valid objection to having their eternal election subjected to such.

The Molinism offered as a solution by Dr. Kenneth Keathley, in his book, Salvation and Sovereignty, would also seem to subject men to the circumstances of their particular world:

Molinism teaches that God exercises His sovereignty primarily through His omniscience, and that He infallibly knows what free creatures would do in any given situation. In this way God sovereignly controls all things, while humans are also genuinely free. God is able to accomplish His will through […] His middle knowledge.[9]

He further states:

First, God knows everything that could happen. This […] is His natural knowledge […] Second, from the set of infinite possibilities, God also knows which scenarios would result in persons freely responding in the way He desires. This […is His] middle knowledge. From [this] repertoire of available options […], God freely and sovereignly chooses which one He will bring to pass. This results in God’s […] foreknowledge of what certainly will occur […—His] free knowledge […][10]

There are some areas of disagreement (as well as agreement) between what I’ve presented and the Molinism that Dr. Keathley presents. First, there is no world consistent with the Bible’s portrayal of depravity, in which anyone would freely respond to God’s gospel with saving faith unless God in His grace worked in that world (and with that person) to bring that one to faith. So, then, God and His purposeful, specific working are not removed from any of these possible “worlds.” Therefore, Dr. Keathley’s approach seems like a semantic way of dancing around the fact that God is really choosing a complete set of specific details of how He will work in the world (and with the genuinely free persons who fill it) in such a way as to accomplish His sovereign plan. God’s middle knowledge would be used in His active providence, and not merely to choose an “off-the-shelf” world to bring into existence. However, every possible variation in the planned history of mankind, and often even small details, does bring with it a certain set of resulting consequences—like dominos falling, one after another. This would limit the number of possible variations of the plan that would accomplish God’s will in the main; leaving God to choose the one that suits Him best.

The God who transcends time and controls all things according to His sovereign plan, has created this world with its immanent justice and circumstances, and elects His children from eternity with full wisdom and planning, taking into account every factor involved. Thus, the middle view can indeed be consistently articulated. God can indeed be a loving God and not evil, and still determine to save only a remnant, even though it was possible for God to determine a heaven-bound destiny for all.

If your experience with studying these matters is like mine, the more you search them out, the more amazed you are by the mysteries of God that are far beyond our minds!—and the more impressed you are that those who argue most loudly put far too much confidence in their own oversimplifications. As we have seen in this series, regarding how sovereignty, foreknowledge, election and inability relate to human freedom and responsibility, there is much more to these questions than what the Calvinists and Traditionalists insist upon. That’s why so many Baptists are intuitively anchored to the Biblical center. We’ve weighed the arguments of both sides, and have found them wanting. I hope that our brothers on either side will discard cheap dismissals and choose instead to substantively engage what has been presented in this series. Here are the preceding posts:

The 3rd Rail: Why the Middle View is Here to Stay
The 3rd Rail: The Call to Believe is Not Without a Promise
The 3rd Rail: Exegetical Problems with Corporate Election
The 3rd Rail: Inability of the Will is Never Literal
The 3rd Rail: God Does Good, Men Do Evil
The 3rd Rail: The Fallacy of a Restrictive Foreknowledge
The 3rd Rail: Unconditional Election is Not Restrictive


[1] Eric Hankins. “Loyal Opposition,” SBC Today, accessed at http://sbctoday.wpengine.com/loyal-opposition/
[2] There is an important distinction to be made between God’s compassion for the lost and His planned work of grace to save some. Andrew Fuller, “Answers to Queries,” The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, (Harrisonburg: Sprinkle, 1988), vol. III, p. 770, explains: “[…]I am not aware of having represented God as ‘seeking the salvation of those who are not saved.’ If by the term seeking were meant no more than his furnishing them with the means of salvation, and, as the moral Governor of his creatures, sincerely directing and inviting them to use them, I should not object to it […] But if it be understood to include such a desire for the salvation of men as to do all that can be done to accomplish it, I do not approve of it.”
[3] Robert L. Dabney, Systematic Theology, chap. 35.
Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, (Phillipsburg: P & R, 1992,  edited by James T. Dennison, Jr.), Fourth Topic, seventeenth question, Sections XVIII:
Turretin states,  “…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)…”  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, 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 (Section XXIX).
[4] Ibid.
[5] John Murray, Redemption: Accomplished and Applied, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955), pp. 9-10
[6] Fuller, Ibid.
[7] Ken Hamrick, “Toward Theological Reconciliation: Atonement,” accessed at http://sbcvoices.com/toward-theological-reconciliation-atonement-by-ken-hamrick/
[8] Fuller, Ibid., p. 765, states: “There is a link, as some have expressed it, that unites the purposes of God and the free actions of men, which is above our comprehension; but to deny the fact is to disown an all-pervading providence; which is little less than to disown a God.”
[9] Kenneth Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty, (Nashville: B&H, 2010), p. 5.
[10] Ibid., p. 152.

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