Another good question came to me recently:
I was reading Bob’s article on the coronavirus in Grace in Focus. At one point he refers to “God’s secret will.” He says, “The sovereign will of God is everything that actually happens. But before it happens, we don’t know what will occur.” Doesn’t this put us back into Calvinism’s unconditional election? In other words, if an individual lives his entire life and never believes in Jesus for eternal life, then when he dies, we must say “it was God’s secret will that he not be saved.” Even though God offers eternal life to whosoever, that person could not believe because it was God’s secret will. Could you clarify?
I titled this blog in such a way as to give part of the answer to this question. God’s sovereign will is sometimes secret. But God’s sovereign will for the past is laid out in some detail in the Scriptures. And He even tells us some aspects of His sovereign will for the future (e.g., Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah, Revelation). I should have made that clear in my article.
Theologians have coined the expression God’s sovereign will to refer to everything that happens. Everything. Past, present, and future. It is all His sovereign will.
J. Paul Tanner writes concerning God delivering Israel by means of Gideon:
In this case the ministry of the Spirit reflects God’s sovereign will to set things in motion for the deliverance He planned, not Gideon’s condition of faith or spirituality. Certainly, Gideon was acting in obedience when he blew the shofar and summoned the Israelite tribes to battle, but the following episode (6:36–40) with his request about the fleece clearly reveals his shortcomings.
Rather than being a paradigm for the discernment of God’s will, Gideon’s request for a fleece is an expression of doubt and lack of faith… (“The Gideon Narrative as the Focal Point of Judges,” BibSac 149  158).
God’s sovereign will does not mean that He causes everything, though a small number of Calvinists seem to go that far. God does not cause anyone to sin (Jas 1:13-15). But God allows sin. Since everything is under God’s sovereign control, whatever happens is part of His sovereign will, even if it is contrary to His moral will.
I know that is a bit confusing. But here is an illustration. You love your children. You want them to obey you. Yet within certain limits, you allow them to disobey you. When they do, you discipline them. The process of allowing them to disobey and then correcting them produces maturity in their lives. The same is true with God’s discipline of believers, unbelievers, and even nations (though with unbelievers and nations we typically do not call His correction discipline, but instead, temporal judgment).
Of course, the ultimate outcome in the lives of people and nations depends on how they respond to God’s discipline/temporal judgment. God allows people and nations limited freedom.
Concerning unconditional election, I do not believe that is what the Bible teaches. I understand the Bible to teach that God elects or chooses people and places for service. Israel is God’s chosen people. Jerusalem is His chosen city. The apostles were chosen to oversee the early growth of the Church. But no one was ever chosen to be born again. See Acts 13:46. God wants all to be saved (1 Tim 2:4). That is His desire. But He allows people to reject Him (e.g., Matt 23:37-39; John 1:11; 5:39-40). So, God’s sovereign will is that people who accept the free gift of everlasting life have it, and people who reject that gift do not. (For more on this issue see the book Chosen to Serve by Shawn Lazar.)
You and I cannot tell who are born again and who are not by looking at them. We discover that by looking at the root, not the fruit. If they indicate that they know they have everlasting life that can never be lost because they believe in the Lord Jesus Christ for it, apart from works, then we know that they are born again. If they do not make such a confession, then we do not know if they are believers who have been bewitched (Gal 3:1) or unbelievers.
The reader is correct when he says that God allows unbelievers to die. But when a person who currently is not believing the faith-alone message dies, it is almost always unknown to us whether he went to be with the Lord or not. Here is what I mean by that. In a country like the United States, there are very few people who have not heard the promise of eternal life to all who believe in Jesus. Indeed, most have heard the saving message many times. You and I cannot know if a person believed in Christ at some point in his life and later fell away.
Consider an extreme example. What if a professing atheist dies? Most would say that he was clearly unregenerate. But he could have come to faith earlier in his life and then fell away. The son of a pastor friend of mine was a strong Free Grace proponent for years. Then after college he fell away and is currently an atheist. But he knows that if what he used to believe is true, he is born again despite his atheism. He even tells people that. And he is right. There is no requirement of eternal faith to have eternal life. Once a person believes in Christ, he is saved, and he will always be saved, even if he later falls away.
But when a person who confesses the faith-alone message dies, God’s sovereign will is not secret. We know that person is now with the Lord (2 Cor 5:8).
Finally, this statement is a misunderstanding of what I wrote: “Even though God offers eternal life to whosoever, that person could not believe because it was God’s secret will.” A correct statement of my view would be “the fact that a person dies never having believed in Jesus is within God’s sovereign will.” God did not hinder that person from believing. In fact, He is moving everyone to believe in Jesus (John 12:32; Acts 17:27). No adult of sound mind is unable to believe. But God does allow people to reject His revelation and even die in unbelief.
The only people who die who could not believe are babies, small children, and those with mental impairment. God’s sovereign will is that such people will not be eternally condemned. But for everyone who reaches the age of accountability with sufficient mental ability, faith in Christ is possible (and required for everlasting life).