John Howe on the Sincere Free Offer of the Gospel

1630-1705

 

Professor John Murray specified that his reference to God’s preceptive will as desire is to be understood in terms of Howe’s language about God willing complacentially.

 

 

Selections

John Howe on What Anthropopathisms attributed to God Mean

John Howe on God’s Revealed Will is Actually His Will 

 

 

The Redeemer’s Tears Wept Over Lost Souls: A Treatise on Luke 19:41-42

This short book (102 pages) exposits and applies Christ weeping over Jerusalem.  Read the whole work here.  Buy

 

The Reconcilableness of God’s Prescience of the Sins of Men, with the Wisdom and Sincerity of His Counsels, Exhortations, and Whatsoever Means He Uses to Prevent Them, from sections 16-18, 20-22 (in some edition sections 20-22 are marked 21-23), in part compiled by Rev. Sherman Isbell

XVI.  That our disquisition may be here a little more strict, we shall inquire both,

What may be supposed possible to be alleged out of God’s Word, in reference to them that persist in wickedness till they finally perish, which it can be thought not consistent with sincerity to have inserted, upon the supposed foresight of so dismal an issue.

And what more convenient course we can think of, which sincerity (as we apprehend) would have required.

As to the former.  It may, perhaps, be alleged, that he professes to will the salvation of all men.  1 Tim. 2:4.  Not to desire the death of him that dyeth.  Eze. 18:32   Yea and professes himself grieved that any perish.  Ps. 81. 12, 13  Now these things, compared with his public declarations, and tenders, directed, in an universal tenor, to all men, carry that appearance and show with them, as if He would have it believed, his end were to save all.  Wherewith his foresight of the perdition of so many, seems ill to agree.  For, how can that end be seriously intended, which it is foreseen will not be brought about?  And how can it be thought to consist with sincerity, that there should be an appearance of his having such an end, unto which, a serious real intention of it does not correspond?

Wherefore we shall here examine, what appearance such expressions as those above recited, can, by just interpretation, be understood to amount unto.

And then show that there is really with the Blessed God, what does truly and fully correspond to that appearance.  And very agreeably too, with the hypothesis of his foreseeing how things will finally issue, with very many.

XVII.  That which his declarations to men do amount unto, is, in sum, thus much, — that, whereas they have, by their defection and revolt from Him, made themselves liable to his justice, and very great consequent miseries; He is willing to pardon, save, and restore them to a blessed state, upon such terms as shall be agreeable (the recompense due to his injured law being otherwise provided for, at no expense of theirs) to the nature of that blessedness they are to enjoy, the purity of his own nature, and the order and dignity of his government…

XVIII. Tis true that He frequently uses much importunity [insistent solicitation and entreaty] with men, and enforces his laws with that earnestness, as if it were his own great interest to have them obeyed; wherein, having to do with men, he does like a man, solicitously intent upon an end which He cannot be satisfied till be attain. Yet withal, he has interspersed, every where in his word, so frequent, Godlike expressions of his own greatness, all-sufficiency, and independency upon his creatures, as that if we attend to these his public declarations, and manifests of Himself entirely, so as to compare one thing with another, we shall find the matter not at all dissembled; but might collect this to be the state of things between Him and us, that He makes no overtures to us, as thinking us considerable, or as if any thing were to accrue to Him from us.  But that, as He takes pleasure in the diffusion of his own goodness, so it is our interest to behave ourselves suitably thereunto, and, according as we comply with it, and continue in it, or do not, so we may expect the delectable communications of it, or taste, otherwise, his just severity.  That, therefore, when He exhorts, obtests, entreats, beseeches that we would obey and live; speaks as if He were grieved at our disobedience, and what is like to ensue to us therefrom; these are merciful condescensions, and the efforts of that goodness, which chooses the fittest ways of moving us, rather than that He is moved Himself, by any such passions as we are wont to feel in ourselves, when we are pursuing our own designs.  And that He vouches safe to speak in such a way as is less suitable to Himself, that it may be more suitable to us, and might teach us, while He so far complies with us, how becoming it is that we answerably bend ourselves to a compliance with him.  He speaks, sometimes, as if he did suffer somewhat human, as an apt means (and which to many proves effectual) to bring us to enjoy, at length, what is truly divine.  We may, if we consider, and lay things together, understand these to be gracious insinuations; whereby, as He has not left the matter liable to be so misunderstood, as if He were really affected with solicitude, or any perturbation concerning us, (which He has sufficiently given us to understand his blessed nature cannot admit of) so nor can they be thought to be disguises of Himself, or misrepresentations, that have nothing in Him corresponding to them.  For they really signify the obedience and blessedness of those his creatures that are capable thereof, to be more pleasing and agreeable to his nature and will, than that they should disobey and perish; (which is the utmost that can be understood meant by those words, God will have all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth [1 Tim. 2:4]) but withal, that He so apprehends the indignity done to his government, by their disobedience, that if they obey not (as the indulgent constitution and temper of his law and government now are, in and by the Redeemer) they must perish.  If we consider and recollect, what notices He has furnished our minds with, of the perfections of a Deity, and what He has remonstrated to us of his own nature, so plainly in his word; we cannot understand more by it, than the calm dispassionate resentment and dislike, which most perfect purity and goodness have, of the sinfulness and miserable ruin of his own creatures…

XIX.  …Nor is it reasonably to be doubted(such a will being all that can be pretended to be the visible meaning of the passages before noted) whether there be such a Will in God or no.  And so somewhat really corresponding (the next thing promised to be discoursed) to the aspect and appearance hereof, which is offered to our view.  For what should be the reason of the doubt?  He, who best understands his own Nature, having said of himself what imports no less; why should we make a difficulty to believe him?  Nor indeed can any notices we have of the Perfections of the Divine Nature be less liable to doubt, than what we have of his unchangeable veracity; whence, as it is impossible to him to lie, it must be necessary, that he be really willing of what he has represented himself so to be

[Note for below: Howe agrees with the distinction between the revealed and secret will of God.  He complains though that the Latin for the revealed will, ‘will of sign’, might be, and has often been, misunderstood (1) that it is a sign only, and not really willed by God, (2) that it is not really his good-pleasure (which is the Latin for the secret will), (3) that it appears to make God more willing of the permission of sin than of righteousness, and (4) that persons have slandered God as insincere because of this.  Strangely many Christians are guilty of this.  That God’s revealed will is his will, see many of the quotes from the reformation and post-reformation era here]  

Nor indeed can any notices we have of the perfections of the divine nature be less liable to doubt, than what we have of his unchangeable veracy [truth]; whence, as it is impossible to Him to lie, it must be necessary, that He be really willing of what He has represented Himself so to be.  I must here profess my dislike of the terms of that common distinction, the voluntas beneplaciti [‘will of good-pleasure,’ or decree], et signi [‘and sign,’ or revealed will], in this present case: under which, such as coined, and those that have much used it, have only rather, I doubt not, concealed a good meaning, than expressed by it an ill one.  It seems, I confess, by its more obvious aspect, too much to countenance the ignominious slander, which profane and atheistical dispositions would fasten on God, and the course of his procedure towards men; and which it is the design of these papers to evince of as much absurdity and folly, as it is guilty of impiety and wickedness: as though He only intended to seem willing of what He really was not; that there was an appearance to which nothing did subesse [exist under].  And then why is the latter called voluntas [will]? unless the meaning be, He did only will the sign; which is false and impious; and if it were true, did He not will it with the will of good pleasure.  And then the members of the distinction are confounded; or, as if the evil actions of men were more truly the objects of his good pleasure than their forbearance of them.  And of these faults the application of the distinction of God’s secret will, and revealed, unto this case, though it be useful in many, is as guilty.

XX.  The truth is, (unto which we must esteem ourselves obliged to adhere, both by our assent and defense) that God does really and complacentially will (and therefore does with most unexceptionable sincerity declare Himself to will) that to be done and enjoyed by many men, which He does not, universally, will to make them do, or irresistibly procure that they shall enjoy.  Which is no harder assertion, than that the impure will of degenerate, sinful man is opposite to the holy will of God; and the malignity of man’s will to the benignity of his.  No harder than that there is sin and misery in the world, which how can we conceive otherwise, than as a repugnancy to the good and acceptable will of God?  Methinks it should not be difficult to us to acknowledge, that God does truly, and with complacency, will whatsoever is the holy, righteous matter of his own laws

XXI.  And whereas it may be thought to follow hence, that hereby we ascribe to God a liableness to frustration, and disappointment.  That is without pretence.  The resolve of the Divine will, in this matter, being not concerning the event what man shall do, but concerning his duty what he should, and concerning the connection between his duty and his happiness.  Which we say He does not only seem to will, but wills it really and truly.  Nor would his prescience [knowing something before it takes place; foreknowledge] of the event, which we all this while assert, let frustration be so much as possible to Him.  Especially, it being at once foreseen, that his will, being crossed in this, would be fulfilled in so important a thing, as the preserving the decorum of his own government.  Which had been most apparently blemished, beyond what could consist with the perfections of the Deity, if either his will concerning men’s duty, or the declarations of that will, had not been substantially the same that they are.

And if yet it should be insisted [by critics], that in asserting God to will what by his laws he has made become man’s duty, even where it is not done we shall herein ascribe to Him, at least, an ineffectual and an imperfect will, as which does not bring to pass the thing willed.  It is answered, that imperfection were with no pretence imputable to the Divine will, merely for its not effecting every thing, whereto it may have a real propension.  The absolute perfection of his will stands in the proportion, which every act of it bears, to the importance of the things about which it is conversant.  Even as, with men, the perfection of any act of will is to be estimated, not by the mere peremptory sturdiness of it, but by its proportion to the goodness of the thing willed.

The will of God is sufficiently to be vindicated from all imperfection, if we have sufficient reason for all the propensions and determinations of it, whether from the value of the things willed, or from his own sovereignty who wills them.  In the present case, we need not doubt to affirm, that the obedience and felicity of all men, is of that value, as whereunto a propension of will, by only simple complacency, is proportionable.  Yet that his not procuring, as to all, (by such courses as He more extraordinarily takes with some) that they shall, in event, obey and be happy, is upon so much more valuable reasons as that, not to do it was more eligible, with the higher complacency of a determinative will.  And since the public declarations of his good will, towards all men, import no more than the former, and do plainly import so much; their correspondency to the matter declared is sufficiently apparent…

XXII.  Nor (as we also undertook to show) could any course (within our prospect) have been taken, that was fit, in itself, and more agreeable to sincerity.

There are only these two ways to be thought on, besides [the solution described above].  

[1] Either that God should wholly have forborne to make overtures to men in common.

[2] Or, that he should efficaciously have overpowered all into a compliance with them.

 And there is little doubt, but, upon sober consideration, both of these will be judged altogether unfit.

The former [1]; Inasmuch as it had been most disagreeable to the exact measures of his Government, to let a race of sinful Creatures persist, through many successive Ages, in apostasy and rebellion, when the characters of that Law, first written in Man’s heart, were in so great measure outworn, and become illegible; without renewing the impression, in another way; and reasserting his right and authority, as their Ruler and Lord; To the Holiness of his Nature, not to send into the world such a declaration of his Will, as might be a standing testimony against the impurity, whereinto it was lapsed; To the goodness of it, not to make known upon what terms, and for whose sake, he was reconcilableAnd to the truth of the thing, since He really had such kind propensions towards men in common not to make them known.  That itself had been more liable to the charge of insincerity, to have concealed from men what was real truth, and of so much concernment to them.  And He did, in revealing them, but act his own Nature; the goodness whereof is no more lessened, by men’s refusal of its offers, than his Truth can be made of none effect by their disbelief of its assertions. Besides the great use such an extant revelation of the way of recovery, was to be of, to those that should obediently comply with it, even after they should be so to do…

 

“The Living Temple” in The Works of the Rev. John Howe (New York: John P. Haven, 1838), 1:105, on 1 Pet. 3:18-20.  This quote was compiled by Tony Byrne.

When it was said concerning the old world before the flood, [Gen. 6:3] “My Spirit shall not always strive with man,” it is implied, it had been constantly and generally striving, until then; but that it was now time, by the holy, wise, and righteous judgment of Heaven, to surcease, and give them over to the destruction which ensued.  Which text, ’tis true, some interpret otherwise; but if we will allow that of the 1 Pet. 3:18-20, to mean that, while Noah, that preacher of righteousness, did it externally, Christ was, by his Spirit, inwardly preaching to that generation, who were now since in the infernal prison; not while they were so, (which the text says not,) but in their former days of disobedience on earth; this place will then much agree with the sense, wherein we (with the generality of our interpreters) take the other.

 

 

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The Sincere Free Offer of the Gospel