The Potter's Freedom: God Desires to Save All

Chapter six of James White's The Potter's Freedom (Calvary Press Publishing, 2000) is titled "CBF's [Chosen But Free, Normal Geisler's book] 'Big Three' Verses," in which White argues against Geisler's and the Arminian's insistence that God genuinely desires the salvation of all sinners -- not that He wills the salvation of all sinners, but that He desires the salvation of all sinners. White frames the matter thusly: the oft-quoting of three notable passages is evidence "that God wants to save all men, but is unable to do so outside of their freely willing it to be so." (135) Yet again we have another example of White's failure to evaluate a non-Calvinist or Arminian position on the matter, framing the discussion as God's inability to save because of man's alleged all-determining free will. This is the type of nonsense posing as scholarship among Calvinists like White. 

While this rhetoric tragically works in convincing some, thus making Calvinist converts, we find it appalling that any real academician would take it seriously; which speaks volumes of those who endorsed White's book, men like Calvinists Douglas Wilson, Jay Adams, Erwin Lutzer, Tom Nettles, Nelson D. Kloosterman, Robert Reymond, S. Lewis Johnson, John MacArthur's right-hand man Phillip Johnson, Ligon Duncan, Fred Malone, John Gerstner, Bill Ascol, Daniel Wallace, Joe Nesom, and the supralapsarian heretic who wrote the Foreword, R.C. Sproul, Jr., who confesses that God actually is the Author of sin and evil (link), insisting Calvinists should just confess as much, as is noted in his work, Almighty over All: Understanding the Sovereignty of God, a heretical book endorsed by Calvinists Jerry Bridges, Jay Adams, and John H. Armstrong. What all this means with regard to Calvinist scholarship I will leave up to the reader. 

White quotes the "big three" passages (Matt. 23:37; 1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9), suggesting that "the particular meaning for each passage" is merely assumed and then utilized as a proper interpretation as a "primary refutation of any and all passages that would disagree with the Arminian view." (136) (emphasis original) Never mind that White perpetuates the exact same method throughout the entirety of his own work. I suppose, then, that what is good for the goose is not also good for the gander.

Matthew 23:37 Jerusalem, Jerusalem, How Often I Wanted ... 

St John admits that Jesus came to His own Jewish people, but the majority of the Jewish people did not παραλαμβάνω, receive or acknowledge Him. But, to all who did receive or acknowledge Him, He gave the right to become an adopted child of God. (John 1:11, 12, 13) That the Jewish people -- those to whom Jesus was initially sent to redeem (Matt. 1:21; 15:24; Luke 1:68; John 1:11) -- did not welcome or receive or acknowledge Him was an issue which caused Jesus to express Himself emotionally: "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired [ἠθέλησα] to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!" (Matt. 23:37 NRSV) White begins his commentary:
Who, then, is "Jerusalem"? It is assumed by Arminian writers that "Jerusalem" represents individual Jews who are, therefore, capable of resisting the work and will of Christ. But upon what warrant do we leap from "Jerusalem" to "individual Jews"? The context would not lead us to conclude that this is to be taken in a universal sense. Jesus is condemning the Jewish leaders, and it is to them that He refers here. (137-38)
So, White would have us restrict Jesus' reference to "Jerusalem" to the wicked Jewish leaders whom He and His Father allegedly never had any eternal want or desire to save, but had, instead, decreed their condemnation to hell. How, then, do we explain Jesus' alleged "desire," ἠθέλησα (examined below), that these wicked Jewish leaders be gathered together unto Him? In what sense, then, can Jesus' alleged "desire" for the wicked Jewish leaders to be gathered unto Him be genuine? White suggests, "Jesus speaks of 'your children,' differentiating those to whom He is speaking from those that the Lord desired to gather together." (138) This is absurd, given that nowhere in the Christian scriptures is "Jerusalem" ever made reference to the wicked Jewish leaders, nor does this answer alleviate White's and the Calvinist's tension with the fact that even the "children" of the Jewish leaders were not willing to be gathered to the Lord!

But White continues to dig deeper his quandary of a philosophical hole: "A vitally important point to make here is that the ones the Lord desired to gather are not the ones who 'were not willing'! Jesus speaks to the leaders about their children that they, the leaders, would not allow Him to 'gather.'" (138) Allow Him to gather? Where is this Sovereign King of whom White and Calvinists insist exists and governs His world in deterministic fashion? No one allows or disallows this allegedly Sovereign Conquering King to do or not do any act whatsoever in Calvinism! If God has unconditionally elected to save the "children" of the Jewish leaders, then no amount of resistance -- either from the leaders or the "children" themselves -- can thwart the will and decree of God. How inconsistent can White possibly be in attempting to explain away this very simple passage?

The word for "Jerusalem" used at Matthew 23:37 is used throughout the entirety of Scripture to refer to ethnic Jews, as is, at times, "Israel" (cf. 2 Chron. 6:6; Ps. 137:5, 6; 147:12; Matt. 2:3; 3:5), or to the geographic City of the Great King (cf. Ps. 51:18; Isa. 62:6, 7; Matt. 2:1; 5:35; 15:1). To force the word to refer to the Jewish leaders is embarrassingly outlandish without the least amount of warrant. When Jesus refers to the Jewish leaders, He uses the words Pharisees, Sadducees, and Scribes, not Jerusalem, not Israel. Note this explicit passage: "The Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem" (Matt. 15:1). According to White's specious and erroneous interpretation, then, Jerusalem came to Jesus from Jerusalem! Is this what passes for Calvinist scholarship? 

White believes that he is being contextual with regard to Matthew 23: because Jesus had just concluded His discourse against the Jewish leaders, then the "Jerusalem, Jerusalem" referred to at the conclusion must have referred to the Jewish leaders (or, perhaps, to their "children," which he then qualifies). Jesus Himself, however, qualifies Jerusalem as "the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it." White believes that the Jewish leaders are those who stoned the prophets (138), neglecting the fact that even the citizens of Jerusalem, who were not specifically Jewish leaders, took part in the stoning of God's messengers and saints (cf. Luke 20:6; Acts 5:26; 6:12; 7:51, 52, 53, 54, 58; 14:5). Hence the ones guilty of stoning God's messengers were the people of Jerusalem, and not merely the Jewish leaders. 

White continues into even further error, which is entirely unavoidable, in suggesting the context of Matthew 23:13 supports his claims for Matthew 23:37: in the former passage Jesus rebukes the Jewish leaders for shutting off the kingdom of heaven from people, an utter impossibility if unconditional election is true; in the latter passage, White insists Jesus is referring to the "children" -- "those under their authority to hear the proclamation of the Christ" -- of the Jewish leaders. (138) White cannot maintain both positions at the same time. The "people" of Matthew 23:13 does not refer to the "children" of the Jewish leaders of Matthew 23:37. To use his own words against Geisler: So we can now plainly see that White and the Calvinist has absolutely no basis for the assertion that this is the "plain meaning" of the text -- that God wanted to save the "children" of the Jewish leaders but was hindered from doing so. (139) White's inconsistency is unbearable. 

1 Timothy 2:4 God Wants All Saved and to Come to the Knowledge of the Truth

Answering "the big three" for White becomes more desperate when attempting to explain away a seemingly clear statement from St Paul to the effect that "God our Savior ... desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth." (1 Tim. 2:4) The apostle continues: "For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all." (1 Tim. 2:5, 6) He states further: "For to this end we toil and struggle, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe." (1 Tim. 4:10, emphasis added; cf. 1 Cor. 1:21; Gal. 3:22; Heb. 7:25; 11:6) Without having read any other passage in Scripture (e.g., Isa. 55:1; Ezekiel 18:23; 33:11; John 1:12; 3:16, 36; 12:32; Rom. 3:23, 24, 25, 26; 10:9, 10, 13; Rev. 22:17), if someone read only these passages from 1 Timothy, one could only conclude that God's genuine desire is the salvation of all people, regardless of the reality that all people will not be saved (Matt. 7:21, 22, 23; John 3:36; Rev. 19:11-20).

White erroneously speculates that the reference to "all" or "everyone" (1 Tim. 2:4) cannot mean each and every single individual. (140) This is ironic, since he complains about the Arminian, as well as Norman Geisler, to the effect that we all assume "a particular meaning for each passage and then utilizes that interpretation as the primary refutation of any and all passages that would disagree with the Arminian view. Over and over again biblical passages [in Geisler's work] will receive no exegesis outside of, 'Well, it can't mean this, because we know [another passage] says ...'" (136, cf. p. 121) White's complaint backfires on him here. Whatever St Paul means at 1 Timothy 2:4, it cannot mean to James White that God genuinely desires to save all since He has, allegedly, unconditionally elected to save only some. This is White's and the Calvinist's hermeneutic, and it undermines passages of Scripture which teach the contrary.


The apostle begins his address in chapter two urging believers to pray, intercede and give thanksgiving for everyone, "for kings and all who are in high positions." (1 Tim. 2:1) White does not inform us as to why the all here at 1 Timothy 2:1 refers to all, i.e., each and every single person, in a position of authority, but at 1 Timothy 2:4 the all must refer to God's unconditionally elect, and can in no sense imaginable refer to all people in general. Let me inform you as to why this is so: the all completely renders the Calvinistic notion and theory of unconditional election as false. Nevertheless, White attempts interpretive gymnastics at explaining this conundrum he and Calvinists have tragically and unnecessarily created:
Who are kings and all who are in authority? They are kinds of men, classes of men. Paul often spoke of "all men" in this fashion. For example, in Titus chapter 2, when Paul speaks of the grace of God which brings salvation appearing to "all men" (Titus 2:11), he clearly means all kinds of men. (140)
Here is yet another example of the poor scholarship of Calvinist leaders. All kinds of men: this unwarranted rhetorical device should be obvious, but just in case it is not so clear to all -- and by "all" I actually mean each and every reader -- we are forced to answer this plea of White and the Calvinist for "all kinds of men." 

First, let us use White's kinds theory in other selected scenarios where πάν (all, everyone) is used: "and the life was the light of all kinds of people" (John 1:4); "I ... will draw all kinds of people to myself" (John 12:32); "since you have given him authority over all kinds of people, to give eternal life to all kinds of whom you have given him" (John 17:2); "the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all kinds of people who believe" (Rom. 3:22); "since all kinds of people have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23); "For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all kinds of his descendants" (Rom. 4:16); "All kinds of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh" (Eph. 2:3). This is a nonsensical interpretation, but it is not a new one, as John Calvin himself made the same argument.1

Second, though people can be divided into classes from our fallen perspective -- rich, poor, noble, ignoble, ethnically, religiously, gender, etc. -- to suggest that St Paul here refers to "kinds" of human beings is one of the most appalling interpretive attempts we Arminians have witnessed in attempting to explain away what appears so very obvious. White assumes that because "all" does not in every instance refer to each and every single individual (cf. Matt. 3:5; Acts 22:15), then the "all" referred to here, and at Titus 2:1; 3:2, and wherever other passages contradict and undermine his presuppositions, must be a reference to "kinds" of people. But this does not at all follow biblically.

For example, there are clear cases in which "all" refers to each and every single reality that can be named, a sampling of which from Matthew alone will suffice (cf. Matt 1:17, 22; 2:3, 4, 16; 3:15; 4:8, 9, 24; 5:15, 18; 6:29, 32, 33; 8:16; 9:35; 10:30; 11:13, 27; 12:15, 23; 13:33, 34, 41, 44, 46, 51, 56; 14:20, 36; 15:37; 17:11; 18:32; 19:20, 26, 28; 21:12, 19; 22:28, 37, 40; 23:5, 8, 12, 35, 36; 24:2, 8, 9, 14, 30, 33, 34, 39, 47; 25:5, 7, 29, 31, 32; 26:1, 27, 31, 33, 35, 52, 56, 70; 27:1, 22; 28:18, 19). None of the references to "all" here (and in other places) can be qualified as "all kinds" or "classes" or to any less degree than every single unit mentioned. Where "all" is assumed in a general sense, as in a region -- "Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan" (Matt. 3:5) -- we can suggest that every single person is not in view; yet, unless qualified within the text itself, πάν (all, everyone, or everything) can be assumed in its normal Greek and English usage in an exhaustively universal sense. Otherwise, we conclude with absurd notions, as those presented by White and other Calvinists, with the fallacy of "kinds" of human beings.

Finally, consider Paul's qualification at 1 Timothy 2:1, 2, 4, 6; and 1 Timothy 4:10: the same God who desires we pray for all (1 Tim. 2:1), including all in high positions (1 Tim. 2:2); and the same God who desires the salvation of all people (1 Tim. 2:4); He is the same God who gave Himself a ransom for all (1 Tim. 2:6); and is the very same God who is the Savior of all, and especially of those who believe (1 Tim. 4:10). In a general and an exhaustively universal sense, God through Christ is the Savior of each and every single individual on earth, but especially and efficaciously for those who believe. This conveniently avoids the errors of both Universalism and Calvinism. 

2 Peter 3:9 God Does Not Want Any to Perish

St Peter informed his flock that, "The Lord is not slow about his promise [to return, redeem, and save], as some think of slowness, but is patient with you [plural: you all], not wanting [βουλόμενος] any [τινας: any certain one] to perish, but all [πάν] to come to repentance." (2 Pet. 3:9) The Greek word for "not wanting," βουλόμενος, differs only slightly from Paul's use of the Greek for "wishing," θέλει, at 1 Timothy 2:4. Some scholars note that the difference is only imagined; others that the force of thélō should not be weakened from that of boulomai whatsoever.2 

The latter, θέλει, is "commonly used of the Lord extending His 'best-offer' to the believer -- wanting (desiring) to birth His persuasion (faith) in them which also empowers, manifests His presence" (link); while the former, βουλόμενος, is a term "that underlines the predetermined (and determined) intention driving the planning (wishing, resolving). In contrast ... (thélō) focuses on the desire ('wishfulness') behind making an offer (cf. TDNT, 1, 629)." (link) (See footnote 2 for further details.) If we are to assume that boulomai is a stronger word than thélō, then we have to wonder how the Pharisees and the Scribes "rejected God's purpose [boulomai] for themselves" (Luke 7:30).

White believes "the Arminian interpretation" attempts to prove that "God could not possibly desire to save a specific people but instead desires to save every single individual person, thereby denying election and predestination." (145) First, White complains that the foreknowledge view of the Arminian depersonalizes people (173-74); now he complains that the Arminian notion of God caring about all people, desiring to see them saved, denies election and predestination. This is nearly unbelievable. 

If God foreknows all individuals who will trust in Christ -- from this hermeneutic -- and yet He also desires that all be saved, even though all will not be saved, how, then, can White insist that we deny election or that God does not desire to save a specific people? While God does desire the salvation of all sinners (cf. Ezekiel 18:23; 33:11; John 3:16, 17, 36), He delights in saving those who believe (1 Cor. 1:21; Gal. 3:22; 1 Tim. 4:10; Heb. 7:25). Therefore God desires to save a specific people -- believers -- while also wishing all could be saved. God is the Savior of all, but especially of believers (1 Tim. 4:10). How White fails to grasp this very simple, biblical concept is beyond our understanding. 

Question: Will Jesus be bringing final and ultimate, eschatological salvation with Him upon His return? (cf. Mal. 4:2; 2 Thess. 1:6, 7, 8, 9, 10) Does not repentance (coupled with faith, of course) bring about salvation, as well, by God's grace? (Acts 3:19; 17:30; 26:20; Rom. 2:4; 2 Tim. 2:25) How, then, can White insist that the passage of 2 Peter 3:9 is not addressing salvation? (146) What negligent interpretation is this? St Peter is attempting to arouse their sincere intention (2 Pet. 3:1) toward faith and repentance; and, while stating that the Lord desires their repentance, he makes a clear statement that repentance and His salvation is a desire of His for everyone (2 Pet. 3:9). God is being patient with them, those to whom Peter is addressing by use of the word "you," and His patience and desire is demonstrated in the fact that He does not desire for any to perish, not them, not anyone, but for all to come to repentance. 

But to suggest that Peter is informing these people that God is being patient with them, but is, at the same time, waiting to bring them to repentance -- a strange concept forced by an erroneous Calvinistic presupposition -- is entirely unacceptable. In essence, then, Calvinists like White would have us believe that Peter is informing the unconditionally elect that God desires to save the unconditionally elect -- a redundant statement, to admit the least. 2 Peter 3:9 mirrors, in my mind, the teaching of Paul at 1 Tim. 4:10: there is a clear reference to all people in general and to believers in particular. 

Conclusion

White concludes: "Dr. Geisler is right about one thing: the text speaks for itself. But when we actually exegete the text, what it says is the opposite of what the Arminian assumes it says." (150) (emphases original) If James White is our example for executing proper exegesis, then may we all maintain the method of eisegesis at any cost, for the latter can be no worse than the former. Both Geisler and White need a college course in Hermeneutics. Not one of these biblical texts "speak for themselves" -- a very naïve statement -- but are interpreted by us through the lens of our respective hermeneutics. 

When I criticize White's or any other Calvinist's interpretation, I do so through my own hermeneutical lens. I no longer agree with the Calvinist's hermeneutic, and that is why I view and interpret all passages within God's word in this specifically Arminian manner. White and other convinced Calvinists no longer agree with the Arminian's hermeneutic, and that is why they view and interpret all passages within God's word in a specifically Calvinistic manner. Our hermeneutic forces us to believe that God genuinely desires to save all, even though all will not be saved. The Calvinistic hermeneutic forces Calvinists to believe that God only desires to save those whom He has unconditionally pre-selected for salvation. Neither camp can argue for one's views in any other method. Yet, while I disagree with White's Calvinistic interpretations, I will also not allow him to repeat ignorant and unwarranted comments regarding Arminianism without a rebuttal.
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1 John Calvin, Commentary on Romans (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979), 211.

2 Arminian scholar I. Howard Marshall notes, "The question at issue is not whether all will be saved but whether God has made provision in Christ for the salvation of all [He has, cf. John 1:29; 2 Cor. 5:14, 15], provided that they believe, and without limiting the potential scope of the death of Christ merely to those whom God knows will believe." Marshall also underscores the fact that thélō [at 1 Tim. 2:4] usually "expresses a wish or desire, but this does not necessarily mean that it expresses a mere wish as opposed to a real purpose [cf. Acts 18:21; Rom. 7:15, 19; 9:16, 18; 1 Cor. 4:19; 12:18; 15:38; Gal. 5:17; Col. 1:27]. The range of meaning of the less-commonly used verb boulomai [at 2 Pet. 3:9] is also wide." Marshall concludes, "He, therefore, who contends that it [thélō] is a weaker verb that is used here [at 1 Tim. 2:4] must explain why the stronger verb is used to the same effect in [2 Peter 3:9]"; stating further, "Had boulomai rather than thélō been used in 1 Timothy 2:4 [and vice versa, for that matter], it is difficult to see how the meaning would have been essentially different." See I. Howard Marshall, "Universal Grace and Atonement in the Pastoral Epistles," in The Grace of God and the Will of Man, ed. Clark H. Pinnock (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1995), 56-57. 

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ABOUT WILLIAM BIRCH

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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.