…[God] desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 1 Timothy 2:4
Last time we looked at two of the four possible interpretations of this verse, namely, 1) God sovereignly wills all people without exception to be saved, and 2) God sovereignly will all kinds of people to be saved. If you missed that post, you can find it here.
That leaves us with two options, both of which hold that “desires” in 1 Timothy 2:4 refers to God’s moral will. The third and fourth options are 3) God calls all people without exception to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth, and 4) God calls all kinds of people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
I have already noted that the interpretation I prefer is one of these two. Some in the Arminian camp may be tempted to think, “Aha! We have you now.” They would accuse me of contradicting myself, or worse yet, causing God to contradict Himself. In their minds, taking this position while also holding that God sovereignly chooses to save only some sinners is to say that God “desires” two different things. And they would be right! I do believe that God desires two different things – but that is not a contradiction. He sovereignly wills the certain salvation of some, while morally willing that all people be saved.
Now the burden is on me to show that this is not a biblical contradiction. I assure you, it is no burden at all. Scripture consistently and frequently upholds this very thing. The purpose of this post and the next will be to show that God does have two wills, moral and sovereign, that at times do not coincide. This will legitimize the notion that the interpretation of “desires” in 1 Tim 2:4 as God’s moral will does not contradict the doctrine of unconditional election.
Even though I could draw on many examples, so as not to beat a dead horse, I will show two mainly, while making short references to a few others. These offer ironclad proof that God morally wills one thing while sovereignly willing something else.
First, God and Pharaoh. In Exodus 4, we find God giving instructions to a reluctant Moses to go to Egypt and lead the Israelites out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. God has a command for Pharaoh to be delivered by Moses, which he does for the first time in 5:1, Afterward Moses and Aaron went and said to Pharaoh, "Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, 'Let my people go, that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness.'" Clearly, it is God’s moral will for Pharaoh to release the people of God. He has commanded this. For Pharaoh to refuse is for Pharaoh to sin. This command is not given just once. It is given seven times (5:1, 7:16, 8:1, 8:20, 9:1, 9:13, 10:3).
At the same time, the text clearly shows that God sovereignly wills the exact opposite, that Pharaoh should not let God’s people go. In 4:21, as God is giving Moses His preliminary instructions, He expresses His divine intentions toward Pharaoh: And the LORD said to Moses, "When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in your power. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go.” God will harden Pharaoh’s heart in order to sovereignly prevent Pharaoh from obeying God’s moral will.
At this point, I feel it is necessary to make a preemptive strike against those who will respond, “Exodus also says that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. So God was just hardening Pharaoh’s heart in response to his own self-inflicted hardening.” First of all, the text does not say that God did this in response to Pharaoh. Nor does it say that God hardened Pharaoh due to His foreknowledge that Pharaoh would harden himself. There are three reasons to see God’s sovereign will in the matter as the determinative force behind what transpired.
First, as I’ve already mentioned, God stated His intention to harden Pharaoh prior to Moses delivering God's command to Pharaoh. It is God’s clearly stated sovereign desire that Pharaoh not let the Israelites go (4:21). This is offered to Moses and to the reader as the framework for how to understand what was to come. God planned to give Pharaoh a command and also planned to harden Pharaoh so that he would not obey that command.
Second, once we get into the narrative that actually describes the back-and-forth between Moses and Pharaoh, there are 18 references to the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. These reference can be split up into four groups: (1) those that tell us that Pharaoh hardened his own heart (8:15, 8:32, 9:34); (2) those stating that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, without explicit reference to who was responsible for the action (7:13, 7:14, 7:22, 8:19, 9:7, 9:35, 14:5); (3) those stating that God hardened the heart of Pharaoh (9:12, 10:1, 10:20, 10:27, 11:10, 14:8); and (4) those in which God states, “I will harden the heart of Pharaoh” (7:3, 14:4).
[Of the second group of references, those stating that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, without explicit reference to who was responsible for the action, four contain the tag line, “as the Lord had said” (7:13, 7:22, 8:19, 9:35). “As the Lord had said” when? As the Lord had said in 4:21, “…I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go.” For this reason, it is reasonable to put these references in the same column as those which explicitly mention God as the agent of the hardening.]
It is important to notice that the first reference to the hardening, 7:3, and the last reference to the hardening, 14:8, both state that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. These two references are like the bookends of this narrative. This repetition of similar material at the beginning and ending of a section of literature is referred to as an inclusio. It provides a frame for understanding what comes in between. Did Pharaoh choose to harden his own heart? Certainly he did, but trying to explain how that coincides with the Lord’s hardening of his heart is beyond the scope of this post. The point I am making is that God gave Pharaoh a moral command to let the Israelites go while at the same time sovereignly preventing him from doing so.
Third, in Romans 9 we get Paul's Spirit-inspired interpretation of these events. In his discussion of God's sovereignty over the salvation of men, Paul uses Pharaoh as an example of God's freedom to harden whom He pleases: For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, "For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth." So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills (Rom 9:17-18).
It would seem clear then that it is not contradictory for God to morally will one thing, while sovereignly willing something else. This one example from Exodus is definitive, but lest I appear to be arguing from an isolated case, next time I will give another huge proof – the greatest crime in history – the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.