“This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Tim. 2:3–4), and “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
These verses raise a question, though, that I highlighted in my prior post: does God get what He wants or not? Outside of Universalists, Christians acknowledge that not everyone will spend eternity with God. So that being true, if God really doesn’t choose who will be saved, then why doesn’t God get what these two verses say He wants?
There are only two possible answers to the question:
- There is a power in the universe greater than God’s that is frustrating Him by overruling what He wills.
- God does get what He wants, but He wills something more than the salvation of all humanity, with this ‘something’ resulting in not everyone being saved and God’s purpose still being accomplished.
Some say #1 is the right answer; those who feel, for example, that this world has gotten beyond God to keep things such as evil in check. However, the majority of Christians who affirm God’s sovereignty rule out #1, leaving #2 as the only other option.
If #2 is true, then the question becomes: what is this thing that God desires more than the salvation of everyone?
The answer most give is that God values human free will and a potential love relationship more than saving all people via His efficacious grace. Laced throughout such replies is talk of self-determination, how God doesn’t create or want ‘robots’, and assertions that God would never force Himself on people.
However, there’s an important problem with those answers. You will not find Biblical support for them anywhere in Scripture.
The two verses highlighted most often as proof that God wants all saved provide no backing whatsoever for that line of reasoning, nor does the context that surrounds them. Instead, they only implicitly present us with the question as to why everyone isn’t saved and do not give us the answer to it or what God desires more than the salvation of all.
But what if…? What if there was another place in the Bible that brought to our attention the exact same dilemma (God wanting to save people, but they aren’t obtaining salvation), but did answer the question quite clearly as to why everyone is not being saved and stated what God wills more than the salvation of everyone?
Would that help solve the endless debates Christians have about these issues?
The Pain of Paul
In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he tells his readers what pains him the most – the fact that his fellow countrymen and women aren’t experiencing God’s salvation: “I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience testifies with me in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption as sons, and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises, whose are the fathers, and from whom is the Christ according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen” (Rom. 9:1-5).
The Apostle’s agony is compounded by the fact that, if such a thing is indeed true, it means God has failed to keep His promises to Israel and that He has, in effect, failed and not achieved what He wants. This is the exact same quandary that implicitly arises from 1 Tim. 2:3-4 and 2 Pet. 3:9, but is not answered in those Pauline letters – why isn’t God getting what He wills?
John Murray’s commentary on Romans articulates Paul’s situation this way: “The question posed for the apostle is: how can the covenant promise of God be regarded as inviolate when the mass of those who belong to Israel . . . have remained in unbelief and come short of the covenant promises?”
The Solution of Paul
Paul’s answer to the question is this: “But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel” (Rom. 9:1–6).
Paul says God it’s not that God doesn’t get what He wants – He does and never fails. It’s that not all those who were born Jews will be saved.
But why aren’t all Jews being saved? Surely Paul will tell us it’s because many are using their free will to deny God’s gift of salvation and that’s why they aren’t experiencing salvation through Christ.
However, in vv. 7-13, Paul instead uses the example of Isaac, Esau and Jacob to make his point. God chose Abraham, then Isaac not Ishmael, then Jacob and not Esau. Why? “So that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls” (Rom. 9:11).
Instead of propounding a free will argument, Paul says that not everyone who comes from Abraham gets the same treatment from God. Before they were ever born, God made His choice of individuals. The idea that some have put forward that God is talking of nations in this passage and not individual people cannot hold up under serious exegetical scrutiny.
As if anticipating the exact same response that people who reject election give today to the idea of God choosing some and not others for salvation, Paul proactively responds: “What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be!” (Rom. 9:14).
Paul’s question makes absolutely no sense if he believed in the free will argument of salvation. What is unjust about providing a way of salvation for all and letting everyone choose whether they will accept it or not? Answer: nothing.
Instead Paul’s conclusion regarding how a person is saved is summed up this way: “So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy” (Rom. 9:16). In other words, it’s not about human free will or works, but God’s mercy directed towards those who he chooses (vs. 15) because He is the potter and His creation the clay (vv. 20-21).
The Answer to the Key Question
So Paul first addresses in a direct manner the “why isn’t everyone saved?” question that implicitly arises from 1 Tim. 2:3-4 and 2 Peter 3:9 and demonstrates that God does indeed get what He wants and shows how He goes about achieving it. But, what about the key question we posed earlier: since everyone won’t be saved, what is it that God desires more than everyone’s salvation?
Paul provides the answer in the following way: “Who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, “Why did you make me like this,” will it? Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use? What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? And He did so to make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory, even us, whom He also called, not from among Jews only, but also from among Gentiles” (Rom. 9:20–24).
The answer Paul supplies is the same one given in Jonathan Edward’s book, The End for Which God Created the World. God’s passion for His glory takes priority over the salvation of everyone.
Paul presents two truths in Romans that cause many Christians to bristle. First, that God gets 100% credit for your salvation, even down to you not choosing it yourself (see vs. 16 again). You’re not a Christian today because you’re smarter than unbelievers and figured things out, or because you’re more humble and recognized your sin where others don’t. No, you’re a Christian today because God had mercy on you, opened your eyes and heart just like He did Lydia (Acts 16:14), which caused you to receive His gift of salvation. He gets all the glory; you get none (Eph. 2:8-9).
The second hard truth is that God gets glory when He showcases His justice and wrath in the same way He does when He distributes His mercy. Many think that God is only glorified through the kindness He shows undeserving people, but Paul says in Romans that God also desires to put on display His justice with those He allows to continue in their chosen sin. He receives glory in this as well.
Daniel Fuller describes it like this: “To show the full range of his glory God prepares beforehand not only vessels of mercy but also vessels of wrath, in order that the riches of his glory in connection with the vessels of mercy might thereby become more clearly manifest.”
All of us are born sinners and deserve God’s justice. By grace, God calls some “not from among Jews only, but also from among Gentiles” (Rom. 9:24) for salvation and receives glory for His mercy. Others He leaves in their chosen rebellion, and with these, He receives glory for His justice.
This is the answer, then, as to why everyone is not a Christian and what God desires more than everyone’s salvation. Nowhere in Romans or the rest of the Bible will you find explicit support for God valuing human ‘free’ will over the salvation of people. But in Romans, you do find explicit text detailing what God desires most – His glory that comes from displaying both His mercy and justice on those He chooses.
 Much of this article’s content is influenced by John Piper’s essay, “Are there two wills in God?” For Piper’s analysis of the topic, see: http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/articles/are-there-two-wills-in-god.
 John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), pg. 18.
 John Piper says of the ‘nations’ interpretation: “The interpretation which tries to restrict this predestination or unconditional election to nations rather than individuals or to historical tasks rather than eternal destinies must ignore or distort the problem posed in Rom. 9:1-5, the individualism of 9:6b, the vocabulary and logical structure of 9:6b-8, the closely analogous texts elsewhere in Paul, and the implications of 9:14-23. The position is exegetically untenable.” John Piper, The Justification of God (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), pg. 73.
 Daniel Fuller, Unity of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), pg. 446.