Cork Free Presbyterian Church, 10 Briarscourt (Annex) Shanakiel, Cork, Ireland Pastor: Colin Maxwell. Email:


The following is an imaginary conversation between two Christian friends. One holds to the Doctrines of Grace, a.k.a. Calvinism while the other denies these doctrines. They are good friends - each believes in the free offer of the gospel and each display that evangelistic zeal which ought to mark out every believer in the Lord Jesus. The conversation is friendly and gracious and we want it to stay that way. The trouble with imaginary conversations is that the author's side always wins. The other side always slinks off to rethink their position or even better come out with their hands up. It will probably happen here, unless we rob the Calvinist of some of his knowledge. J

At the moment, they are not discussing the whole range of issues within the Calvinist debate. Limited atonement etc., is not on the table for discussion. The issue here is simply: Has God purposed to save any other than His own elect? As we will see, the key word is the word "purposed" If the reader thinks that some point is particularly weak or something needs to be added, email me and if I think it is worth rewriting the script, I'll do it…just for you. This is a universal offer with no strings attached. J This means you will have to keep an eye on the recent updates page to see whether or not the script changes.

I have no suitable names for these friends. I read a book once which used this style very effectively and deals with the Jehovah Witness controversy. Conveniently, the Witness is called Jay and the Christian is called Chris. I had thought of calling the Calvinist, Grace (She is a sister beloved) and the non Calvinist Will (Short for William) but I thought that was probably a bit loaded. So no names. Just C for the Calvinist. His comments are in red. N/C for the non Calvinist. His comments are in dark blue. Let's eavesdrop!

N/C:- "Hi brother! I was reading a bit of Calvin last night, as you suggested. There is a lot of good stuff there for all Christians, but I still find it hard when he says that God has only purposed to save His elect. It does not seem to tie in with what the Bibles says, and it is the Bible that the final court of appeal."

C:- "I agree with you that if Calvin goes against the Bible, then God's word must have the precedence. However, calmly considered, the Bible itself teaches that God has only purposed to save His elect."

N/C:- "You seem very sure about it! There are many verses that teach that God desires to see all men saved and is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. How can you say that He has purposed to save only His elect?"

C:- "First of all, we are agreed that God has purposes, do we not? We hardly profess to worship a purposeless God?"

N/C:- "Obviously not. But I contend that He has purposed to save everyone…it is just that there are those who reject salvation and damn their own souls."

C:- "Certainly I agree that those who reject salvation are the authors of their own destruction. Calvin taught this also. But we need to look at this thought of God purposing something."

N/C:- "Go on. Let's try and get this rooted in Scripture. Calvin, after all, was only a man. What saith the Scripture?"

C:- "Fair enough. I was thinking of the verse in Isaiah 14:34 which states: 'The LORD of hosts hath sworn, saying, Surely as I have thought, so shall it come to pass; and as I have purposed, so shall it stand.' The last part of the verse seems so definite. As God purposes, so it stands. It seems to me then that if He purposed to save the whole human race, then the whole human race would be saved."

N/C:- "Hmmm. We are not to build a doctrine on one verse. The whole tenor scripture seems to militate against it. Have you any other verses?"

C:- "Yes. Isaiah repeats the assertion three verses on when he wrote: "For the LORD of hosts hath purposed, and who shall disannul it? and his hand is stretched out, and who shall turn it back? and again he wrote: Calling a ravenous bird from the east, the man that executeth my counsel from a far country: yea, I have spoken it, I will also bring it to pass; I have purposed it, I will also do it.'" There are other verses from Daniel and elsewhere."

N/C:- "Yes. As you mention it, Daniel records the words that none can stay God's hand or say unto Him, 'What doest thou?' But what do you make of Matthew 23:37 where Christ said that He would have gathered Jerusalem, but they would not? And 2 Peter 3:9 which says that God is not willing that any should perish and indeed in 1 Timothy 2:4 where He says that He would have all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth? It is verses like these that keep me from embracing your Calvinistic system."

C:- "Well obviously, we agree that there is no contradiction in the word of God. Neither system would be worth tuppence if that was the case."

N/C:- "Agreed. But if Christ said that He would have saved Jerusalem, only they would not…surely He is declaring that He had purposed to do so?"

C:- "If it was His purpose to do so, and they would not…do you think Daniel has found an answer to his question? Or that Isaiah's words should not be taken too seriously?"

N/C:- "I see your point. But the Bible distinctly says that God is not willing that any should perish. Why then do men perish if He wills otherwise? If He will have all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth why haven't all men come? There must be an answer to these questions."

C:- "There is. Excuse me for going to another theologian, but if they can word something clearly, then there is little point in me trying to improve upon it. Robert Dabney points out that although God's will is absolutely executed over all free agents; yet Scripture is full of declarations that sinful men and devils disobey His will! There must be, he argues, a distinction between God's secret and revealed will and His decretive and preceptive will."

N/C:- "What! Two wills in God? This doesn't sound right."

C:- "No, Dabney goes on: 'All God's will must be, in reality, a single, eternal, immutable act. The distinction, therefore, is one necessitated by our limitation of understanding, and relates only to the manifestation of the parts of this will to the creature.'"

N/C:- "What are these distinctions?"

C:- "We must divide God's will between His secretive will and His preceptive will. What God has decreed - or purposed - surely comes to pass. It is His secretive or decretive will that is in mind in Ephesians 1:11 when we read that He worketh all things after the counsel of his own will. On the other hand, though, in God's preceptive will - what He has set forth as His requirements - it is (as Dabney points) very obvious that it is disobeyed all the time."

N/C:- "OK…it sounds plausible enough, but how do you apply these distinctions to the verses I have just quoted?"

C:- "It's not very hard. Take Matthew 23:37 where Christ wept over Jerusalem and said that He would have gathered them but they would not. Obviously here, He had often - His own words - declared to them that if they were willing to be saved, then he was willing to save them. God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked. It brings no joy to Him to see men writhe in pain in hell. He is not a monster. Jerusalem did not respond positively to His gracious invitations and subsequently His preceptive will has been left undone."

N/C:- "Why then did He not decree to save Jerusalem if His decrees cannot be overthrown? Surely that would solve the problem?"

C:- "That's a good question! We cannot answer it, except to say that it pleased God to do otherwise. We ought always to remember that He was not under any obligation to save any - otherwise it would not be grace - and therefore He was not only any obligation to save all."

N/C:- "I suppose then you would put 2 Peter 3:9 where it says that He is not willing that any should perish into the same mould - God's declarative will as opposed to His decretive will?"

C:- "If you apply the verse in a general sense to all men…then yes. Some interpret it to refer only to the folk to whom it was originally written i.e. those who have obtained like precious faith (1:1) Whatever way…it can never be said that God has purposed to save any other than His own elect. Same again for 1 Timothy 2:4 that declares that He would have all men to be saved."

N/C:- "I read Iain Murray's book on these things recently…"

C:- "You mean the Banner of Truth one: Spurgeon versus Hyper-Calvinism" It is very good."

N/C:- "He quotes from Spurgeon's sermon on 1 Timothy 2:4. Spurgeon there seems to distance himself from the regular Calvinistic interpretation that all men means all kinds of men as opposed to all men without any exception. What do you think of that?"

C:- "Whatever way, you take it, we are back to the same idea. In this sermon Spurgeon still safeguarded his interpretation by stating the obvious: 'It is quite certain that when we read that God will have all men to be saved it does not mean that he wills it with the force of a decree or a divine purpose, for, if he did, then all men would be saved. He willed to make the world, and the world was made: he does not so will the salvation of all men, for we know that all men will not be saved.'

N/C:- "It just seems so hard to accept…"

C:- "I agree. Dabney in his article says that there are plausible objections, but we are all impelled to make the distinction. The alternative is harder to accept. If God's purposes can be overthrown then we represent Him as a Being whose desires are perpetually crossed and baffled: yea, trampled on and the most harassed, embarrassed, and impotent Being in the universe. Deny the other part of our distinction, and you represent God as acquiescing in all the iniquities done on earth and in hell. Remember too, again to quote Dabney, the issue is not with Calvinism, but with the doctrine of Inspiration. The Book teaches it."

N/C:- "If these things are all settled and sealed - why do you preach the gospel at all? Will the elect come whether you preach or not?"

C:- "That's easy to answer. God has commanded us to preach. God has ordained not only the end or the purpose, but the means to that end. If I didn't preach…someone else with a balanced view of scripture would. Let me ask you a question! Why do you preach if there is nothing solid to hold on to?

N/C:- " Meaning?"

C:- "Well. If God's purposes can be overthrown or He has not purposed to save anyone in particular but all men in general and is therefore disappointed…do you just preach on the off chance that someone might get saved?"

N/C:- "I don't like that phrase off chance for a start!…"

C:- "I thought that would stir you! J But how else can we describe it? You don't suppose men get saved because the powers of darkness decide they can go? We are back to the need of God having a purpose, and again, no man can say that God has purposed to save all men, but only His elect."

N/C:- I see your point. Why not just preach to the elect?"

C:- "Where does God tell us just to preach to the elect? Besides, who am I to discern among the ungodly who the elect are?"

N/C:- "I have often wondered why you preached the gospel to all men in general. I thought you were being somewhat inconsistent with your creed."

C:- "Spurgeon said in that sermon that he would rather be inconsistent with his creed then inconsistent with God's word. Any way, it is not inconsistent for a Calvinist to preach indiscriminately to all men. Calvin did it but more importantly, God has commanded it. It leaves the reprobate without excuse, and it fulfils the purposes of God in bringing many sons to glory."

N/C:- "I better think about this again. It is quite radical."

C:- "It is only radical if we make man's theology our starting point. The other doctrine of the helplessness of God is the radical doctrine if we place it against the word of God."

N/C:- "I think I'll speak to a few friends about it and get their thoughts on it. Thanks for your time."