Can a God who withholds His grace be all-loving?

Can a God who withholds His grace be all-loving?


Since the Protestant Reformation, there have been pious men who dedicated their lives to the Gospel with the purpose of glorifying God and exposing the truth of scripture. These men were so marveled by God’s omnipotence and sovereignty over the world that it encouraged them to follow His divine plan for their lives. Courageous men like Martin Luther, John Calvin and Charles Spurgeon relentlessly expounded the word of God to those who needed to hear the good news of salvation. Their impact was so great that their teaching and messages continue to resound centuries later. Unfortunately, there exists a great debate among the many doctrinal interpretations given by such men, one of the many being the doctrine of God’s grace.

In the fourth doctrinal point of TULIP—Irresistible Grace—it is said that God’s grace, when extended to a sinner, will regenerate them first, resulting in their conscious awareness of the necessity of God’s goodness. This causes for the sinner to submit to this irresistible call of God and accept God’s gift of salvation through His son, Jesus Christ. This sounds excellent! But then a new question arises:why is everyone not saved? John Calvin attempts to answer this question in his Institutes of Christian Theology:

“Thus in the adoption of the family of Abraham, God gave them a liberal display of favor which he has denied to others; but in the members of Christ there is a far more excellent display of grace, because those ingrafted into him as their head never fail to obtain salvation…We say, then, that Scripture clearly proves this much, that God by his eternal and immutable counsel determined once for all those whom it was his pleasure one day to admit to salvation, and those whom, on the other hand, it was his pleasure to doom to destruction. We maintain that this counsel, as regards the elect, is founded on his free mercy, without any respect to human worth, while those whom he dooms to destruction are excluded from access to life by a just and blameless, but at the same time incomprehensible judgment.” (Chapter 21, Emphasis added)

According to Calvin, the reason why people are not saved is not because they choose to not accept God’s gift of salvation, but that God has denied it to them. Even more, it is to God’s pleasure that those that could be saved, but instead have been denied the grace that could irresistibly save them, are instead doomed to an eternal destruction. But now an even greater question arises: How does this characterize God as benevolent? Can a God who has the ability to extend His grace to all, knowing that it will draw everyone to salvation, but withhold it from some truly be a God of infinite love and mercy?

One of the most tragic events in history occurred on April 15, 1912 which was the sinking of the Titanic. When its construction was completed, it was believed to be unsinkable. Ironically, on its maiden voyage, the Titanic hit an iceberg and of the carrying 2,223 passengers on board, 1,517 died. But what was more heartbreaking was the fact that many more could have been saved if it were not for having been denied access to lifeboats. Although the Titanic carried fewer than the required amount of lifeboats, that was still not to blame for the number of people that died that day. Many of the lifeboats that were onboard had a carrying capacity of 65 passengers but when lowered to escape death, many of these boats carried much fewer survivors than it actually could have. One boat was even recorded to have carried only 28 survivors! That means that 27 people, perhaps even a few more, could have been rescued but instead were left behind. The boat leaders of these lifeboats had more time, space and the capability to save more people but purposely—and for whatever reason—chose to save only a few.

Anyone with a healthy mind will agree that any person having the ability to help all but purposely choosing to only help some cannot be considered loving. That leader’s act of having saved just a few would be quickly ignored and could not be used in any way to defend their character as having done a good deed. If we can easily consider the actions of these leaders as being far from good, how much more can we perceive a God who is believed to be doing the same on a universal scale?

This same unpleasant understanding can be applied to the doctrine of irresistible grace. How can this doctrine hold any real credence whatsoever when Titus 2:11 states, “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men”? This verse can be rationally understood to mean exactly what Paul meant; God’s grace and salvation has been made available to all men and not to just an elect group of people. This interpretation seems more plausible than that of Calvin’s and still defends the correct view of an all-benevolent God, leaving the sinner responsible for his choice for having accepted or rejected this gift that God has sovereignty over. Consequently, God is not responsible for the person’s results since He has provided a solution by His grace and through His Son.

John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” Although many consider this verse to not contradict Calvin’s interpretation, it has a clear message that God’s salvation is offered to the cosmos—the world—and not just to the elect. Cosmos can be interpreted as the universe, the world and even the inhabitants of the world. This same term can be found all throughout scripture carrying the same meaning.

1 Timothy 2:4 says that God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” If God truly desires mankind to repent and be saved, then He would not withhold His grace from them. Instead, scripture more clearly demonstrates that mankind is extended God’s grace, a grace that He sovereignly holds, and it is man who is held accountable for having accepted or rejected God’s gift. Even more, Jesus tells those waiting for the promise that when the Holy Spirit comes, He will convict the world (cosmos) of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment. (John 16:8) The Holy Spirit makes known to us our guilt so that we may make the right decision to look for the freedom of such a fault that has eternal consequences. This is what grace is, the offer of freedom from a deserving punishment by someone who is pure and innocent.

While we acknowledge and give thanks to God for the work and genuine passion of John Calvin, his dedication and imitable zeal, we cannot consider all of his teachings as infallible. “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction and instruction in righteousness.” (2 Timothy 3:16) Paul was telling Timothy that scripture has a divine origin and it is not just a book written by man but rather it was man inspired by God to write His truth. Simply, the doctrine given to us by the New Testament writers did not originate from their own minds or developed by their own ideas by rather it was God-breathed. When God’s character is being questioned and contradicts His nature, then we should revisit scripture to find the correct interpretation. God does not choose some to be saved and leave others in their fallen nature to destruction. But rather God is love, and through His love, He sovereignly moved from heaven to come to Earth so that we may have the choice to accept the Hope that our souls so desperately need.

2 Replies to “Can a God who withholds His grace be all-loving?”

  1. Great article! It was very informative! Did Calvin actually believe that salvation was exclusive for only certain people?
    If God is sovereign does that not mean that He already knows who is going to be saved and who is not going to be saved?
    I understand that God gives us a free will, but is it really free will if God already knows everything before it happens?

    1. Calvin believed that God has foreordained people to eternal life and others to damnation for His glory. According to Calvinism, those who are withheld God’s grace are the reprobate and are left to their sin making them deserving of separation from God. The problem is if God can provide them with the grace needed to allow them to turn from sin and be part of the elect, then why doesn’t He? That truly forces us to question whether this God is truly loving.

      Sovereignty and foreknowledge are two different things. Many feel that God needs to have all things planned and rendered certain in order to know what will happen. John Piper shares that God controls all things down to the smallest atom. I feel that makes God dependent on making sure His plan is realized and has to create the right environment for all creation in order to render certain his will. Once again, this is dangerous to believe because it makes God the originator and cause of all things, including man’s sin, therefore, resulting in a God who cannot be all loving. This contradicts the all-benevolent God of the Bible.

      Lastly, just because God knows what we will do does not mean that we do not have the ability to choose something else. Man’s freedom is not restricted by God, He just knows what we will choose before we do. Think of the contradiction in the belief that we have free will and we freely choose to accept or reject God’s gift of salvation but only those who have been given God’s grace will irresistibly accept and those who are passed over will be lost in their sin. How does this make sense? So do we have the ability to choose to accept or reject God’s gift or is this ability withheld from us? Many who hold dear to Calvin’s theology will say that those who are lost are deserving of that but how when God’s grace was passed over them.

      These excellent questions allow me and many others to realize that there must be something wrong in this particular doctrine’s interpretation of scripture since it greatly contradicts what the Bible clearly teaches and compromises God’s good nature.

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