How Can God Both Desire Your Salvation and Condemn You?

R L Dabney answered this question by an analogy:

The direction in which the answers are conceived to lie may be best indicated by an analogical instance. A human ruler may have full power and authority over the punishment of a culprit, may declare consistently his sincere compassion for him, and may yet freely elect to destroy him. A concrete case will make the point more distinct. Chief-Justice Marshall, in his Life of Washington (Vol. 4., Chap. 6.), says with reference to the death-warrant of the rash and unfortunate Major André “Perhaps on no occasion of his life did the commander-in-chief obey with more reluctance the stern mandates of duty and of policy.” In this historical instance we have these facts: Washington had plenary power to kill or to save alive. His compassion for the criminal was real and profound. Yet he signed his death-warrant with spontaneous decision. The solution is not the least difficult either for philosophy or common sense. Every deliberate rational volition is regulated by the agent’s dominant subjective disposition, and prompted by his own subjective motive. But that motive is a complex, not a simple modification of spirit. The simplest motive of man’s rational volition is a complex of two elements: a desire or propension of some subjective optative power, and a judgment of the intelligence as to the true and preferable. The motive of a single decision may be far more complex than this, involving many intellectual considerations of prudence, or righteous policy, and several distinct and even competing propensions of the optative powers. The resultant volition arises out of a deliberation, in which the prevalent judgment and appetency counterpoise the inferior ones. To return to our instance Washington’s volition to sign the death-warrant of André did not arise from the fact that his compassion was slight or feigned; but from the fact that it was rationally counterpoised by a complex of superior judgments and propensions of wisdom, duty, patriotism, and moral indignation. Let us suppose that one of André’s intercessors (and he had them, even among the Americans) standing by, and hearing the commanding general say, as he took up the pen to sign the fatal paper, “I do this with the deepest reluctance and pity,” should have retorted, “Since you are supreme in this matter, and have full bodily ability to throw down that pen, we shall know by your signing this warrant that your pity is hypocritical.” The petulance of this charge would have been equal to its folly. The pity was real; but was restrained by superior elements of motive. Washington had official and bodily power to discharge the criminal; but he had not the sanction of his own wisdom and justice. Thus his pity was genuine, and yet his volition not to indulge it free and sovereign.


Certainly aware of objections, Dabney proceeded to answer them in this lengthy essay. One of the more interesting aspects of the essay is Dabney’s criticism of Thomistic versions of divine simplicity. Hodge agreed with him in this respect, though it seems a historical oddity.

Here is his response to that issue:

The attempt to illustrate the action of the divine will from the rise of rational volition in man, has doubtless been prejudiced by the scholastic explanations of God’s absolute simplicity. They would have us believe, not only that this excludes all composition and aggregation of quantitative parts, but all true distinction of essence and attributes. They would have the idea of God as absolutely devoid of construction in thought as his substance is of construction in reality. We must, in his case, identify essence and attributes. God is actus purus [pure impulse]. Any attribute is God; and hence one attribute is differentiated from another only by our apprehension of it. With him cognition and effectuation are identical. It does not satisfy them to say that God is an infinite monad, as the rational human soul is a finite monad; and that his attributes, like man’s essential powers of intelligence, sensibility, and will, are not limbs or parts attached to the spirit, but essential modes of functions with which it is endued. They require us to identify God’s attributes with his essence in a way inconceivably closer than we do man’s essential powers with his essence. Now, if this speculation be correct, the attempt to apprehend the action of the divine will by the human must be wholly erroneous. There could be no such distinction, as is true of man, between motive and volition, or between the optative powers and the power of choice. Nor could there be any sense whatsoever in which God’s subjective motive could be complex.
    But we deny that the speculation is correct, susceptible of proof, or possible to be valid to the human mind. Evidently the cognition of such a being is inaccessible to man’s intelligence. The only way he has of knowing substance is through its attributes; and the only cognition we have of it is as the intuitive notion, which the reason necessarily supplies, of the subjectum to which the attributes perceived must be referred. Hence, to require us to think substance as literally identical with each attribute rationally referred to it, is to forbid us to think it at all. Again, reason forbids us to think different attributes as identical. We intuitively know that thought is not conation, and conation is not sensibility; it is as impossible to think these actually identical in God as in ourselves. Last, this speculation brings us too near the awful verge of pantheism. Were it true, then, it would be the shortest and most natural of steps to conclude that God has no other being than the series of activities of the several attributes with which they seek to identify the being. Thus we have the form of pantheism next to the gulf of nihilism. If the attributes are identical with the being of God and with each other, and if it be thus shown that God’s thought makes the object thereof, then, since God is eternally, necessarily, and infinitely intelligent, these results must rigidly follow: That all objective being known to God must be also as eternal and necessary as God; and that it must be as infinite as he is. What more would Spinoza have desired to found his mathematical proof of pantheism? The speculation is not true any more than it is scriptural. The Bible always speaks of God’s attributes as distinct, and yet not dividing his unity; of his intelligence and will as different; of his wrath, love, pity, wisdom, as not the same activities of the Infinite Spirit. We are taught that each of these is inconceivably higher than the principle in man which bears the corresponding name; but if the Scriptures do not mean to teach us that they are distinguishable in God, as truly as in man, and that this is as consistent with his being an infinite monad as with our souls’ being finite monads, then they are unmeaning.


A great essay if you’ve got the fortitude. Dabney should be read more often!

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3 thoughts on “How Can God Both Desire Your Salvation and Condemn You?

  1. While I disagree with Dabney on some things, I think he is always clear and open, particularly in his disagreements with previous Reformed theologians. That’s why he’s so great. He tells the truth!

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