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T.W. Brents

Finally, we come to examine the last strong fortress of Calvinism, which it holds in alliance with Universalism by the common consent of those who oppose them. It is based upon the assumption that God, from all eternity, foreknew every thing that ever has or ever will come to pass; therefore, He foreknew just who and how many would be saved, and who, if any, would be lost. And as the final destiny of every person must be exactly as foreseen by God, it follows that such foreknowledge amounted to an immutable decree. If God knew, ere time began, that Cain would kill his brother, then there was no possibility left to Cain to avoid the deed. Had there been such possibility, Cain might have availed himself of it, and failed to do that which God foreknew he would do, thereby falsifying the foreknowledge of God. If God foreknew that Cain, or anyone else, would act wickedly and be lost, then there was no possibility left him to have acted righteously and to have been saved; for had he availed himself of such a possibility and been saved, it would have been in despite of God’s foreknowledge to the contrary. Ergo, as God foreknew everything, He must have decreed everything; and as He foreknew the destiny of every man, it follows that He decreed the destiny which man had no power to avert.

We believe this is a fair exhibit of the Calvinistic side of the argument; but Universalism applies the same principle to all men that Calvinism applies to the elect. It assumes that God will not punish man for that which he had no power to avoid (and yet we see that he is so punished every day); and as all must pursue the course marked out for them in the foreknowledge of God, none will be punished for carrying out the immutable purposes of Jehovah. Forgetting that God has such attributes as justice and vengeance, it draws largely upon His love, goodness, and mercy: “God is infinite love, and must have desired the salvation of all men. As He foreknew the destiny of every man, and had power to create only such as seemed good to Him, He would, of course, create only such as He foresaw would be saved. Hence all men were created for salvation, and will finally be saved.” Thus we have presented the arguments respectively drawn by Calvinists and Universalists from what they are pleased to call the unlimited foreknowledge of God; and it is but the part of candor to admit that they are not without some degree of plausibility. There are, however, at least three sides to this argument, viz: the Calvinist’s side, the Universalist’s side, and the Lord’s side, and of the three we prefer the last. Many have been the efforts to harmonize the free-agency of man and the unlimited foreknowledge of God, and though we have read everything written on the subject that has fallen under our notice, we have never yet read a plausible theory concerning it. From our stand-point, therefore, the premises are doubtful, to say the least of them: may we not, then, with becoming reverence, inquire whether or not God eternally foreknew every thing that ever has or ever will come to pass?  


In approaching the examination of the subject, we wish to state most plainly that we pretend not to comprehend the mind and purposes of God, only as He has revealed them to us. We pretend not to have fathomed the depths of the wisdom and knowledge of the infinite Jehovah. With Paul, we are ready to exclaim: “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out! for who hath known the mind of the Lord? Or who hath been his counselor?” Rom. xi:33, 34. Oh, the insignificance of man in the presence of God! Indeed, it seems to us unsafe to build a theological system upon an incomprehensible foundation; hence those who base their theory upon the supposed attributes of God, to say the least of them, are liable to build upon the sand. Do they not thereby say that they have sounded the depths of the wisdom and knowledge of God, and have found them extending to a perfect knowledge of every thing that ever has or will come to pass? Do they not, in theory, say that they have searched His judgments, and have found that a definite number were approved, and the reprobates condemned, before time began, or that all were unconditionally approved? Do they not say that they have searched His ways and known His mind to perfection, and can therefore safely build a theological system, involving the destiny of the human race, upon their knowledge of the attributes of God? We may know God’s will, and the extent of His knowledge where He has revealed them to us, but beyond this we dare not go. When God speaks, it is the province of man to hear and believe, whether he can or cannot see to the end.  


When God commanded Abraham to go, he went, not knowing whither he went (Heb. xi:8); hence, when God says He purposed to do anything, we must accept it as true, whether He did it or not; and when He says He did not know a thing, it is unsafe to say that He did know it, His word to the contrary notwithstanding. But has God spoken to man on the subject? Let us see: “And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at heart. And the Lord said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth.” Gen. vi:5-7. Now, if God knew before He created man just how wicked he would be, and what he would do, what can this mean? “God saw that the wickedness of man was great.” Did He not always see? And why did God grieve over a result which was as plain to Him before He created man as when He saw the overt acts of wickedness performed? And if the wickedness of man was such as to cause God to destroy him, why would not this wickedness foreseen have prevented his creation at first? If seeing the wickedness of man caused God to repent making him, and to determine to destroy him, does not it follow that He did not know, prior to his creation, how wicked he would be? Surely, He would not have created man for the purpose of bringing grief to His own heart, and destruction to His creature. But why did God not know the wickedness of the antediluvians, from eternity? Certainly, it was not because He was not capable of knowing future events, for we know He did foretell many things long before they came to pass. The Psalmist says, “Great is our Lord, and of great power: his understanding is infinite.” Ps. cxlvii:5. “Could there be any thing unknown to him whose understanding is infinite?” Let us see. God is as infinite in power as He is in understanding. No one, we suppose, will deny that He is omnipotent as well as omniscient, yet there are some things He cannot do; e.g., God can not lie. Titus i:2; Heb. vi:18. God could not have made two hills without a low place between them. Then if there are some things which God cannot do, though omnipotent, may there not be some things which He DID not know, though omniscient?  



But it may be said that God cannot lie, because it is incompatible with His nature, and not because He has not power to lie. Very well; then He did not know, before making man, just how wicked he would be, simply because such foreknowledge would have been incompatible with the free-agency and responsibility of man. To be responsible, man must be free. If God knew before He gave Adam the law in the garden that he would violate it when given, then he was not free; for he could not have falsified God’s foreknowledge if he would: hence to violate the law was a necessity. The great scheme of salvation conceived by Infinite Wisdom contemplated human responsibility based upon freedom of will, and God had power to avoid the foreknowledge of everything incompatible with His attributes and the scheme of salvation devised by Him. He who says God could not avoid knowing everything, limits the power of Him who is omnipotent. God can limit the exercise of His own attributes, but it is dangerous for man to assume such power. We dare not limit the knowledge of God; but if He saw fit to limit the exercise of His own knowledge, we fear to say He had not the power and the right to do so. Infinite power does not require God to do everything, but it implies the ability to do whatever is in harmony with His attributes and purposes. He could instantly kill every man who violates His law, but, in great mercy, He has seen fit to limit the exercise of His power, and permits us to live: so, in the morning of the first day, God could have looked down the stream of time and have seen the secret intentions of every heart that would ever be subjected to His law, but, in infinite mercy, He saw fit to avoid a knowledge of everything incompatible with the freedom of the human will and the system of government  devised by Him for man. Does anyone say God had not power to do this?  Then let him explain how it was that God grieved over the wickedness of man when He saw that it was great in the earth; yea, let him explain why it was that the wickedness of man caused God to repent that He had made him, if He as clearly saw it before He made him as afterward; and let him further explain why it was that the wickedness of man, which caused God to determine to destroy him from the earth after He had made him, if clearly foreseen by Him, did not prevent God from creating man at first. God exercises His attributes through means, or without them, as may best serve His purposes. When He would exert His power in the creation of anything, He said, Let it be, and it was. When He would bear witness to the divine character of His Son, a voice came from the eternal throne, saying, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Matt. iii:17; xvii:5. When He would rebuke the madness of Balaam, He enabled the beast on which the ungrateful wretch rode, to speak in the language of man. Num. xxii:28. When He would rebuke Belshazzar for the unholy use to which he applied the sacred vessels of His house, He caused the fingers of a man’s hand, where there was no man, to write the king’s doom on the plastered walls of his own palace. Dan. v:5. When He gave His law to the Jews at Sinai, He inscribed it on tables of stone with His own finger; but when He established the new covenant, He wrote His laws upon the hearts of His people with the tongues and pens of men. Even so He could know or not know whatever He desired to know, with or without means. When He would test the complaints that had reached Him concerning the wickedness of the cities of the plains, He said: “Because the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grievous, I will go down now, and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry of it which is come unto me; and if not, I will know.” Gen. xviii:20, 21. Certainly, God could have known what was going on in these cities without going down there to see about it, but He declined to know until He employed His angels, in the likeness of men, as means for the purpose of obtaining the information. But this was not a case of foreknowledge, but simply a case where God made use of means to acquire a knowledge of what had already occurred. This is certainly true, but does it remove the difficulty? Did God know, before time began, all about the wickedness of these cities, and forget it, so as to make it necessary to send His angels to acquire a knowledge of that which He had previously known? Surely, no one is prepared to take a position like this. Do words mean anything? If so, when God said, “I will go down now, and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry of it, which is come unto me; and if not, I will know,” what did He mean? Had He always known? “But this language was used in an accommodated sense.” Was it, indeed? Then let us seek for its meaning in this sense. To whom was it accommodated? Not to God, certainly, for He needed no accommodation. He could have made the communication in any set of words which contained it, either through a medium or without one. Then, if the language was accommodated at all, it must have been to Abraham, to whom it was spoken, and to us for whose benefit it was recorded; but if it conveyed some other idea than is usually conveyed by the same set of words, then we see not how it was accommodated to anyone. The only way by which language can be accommodated to any one consists in its adaptation to the comprehension of the party addressed and the thought to be conveyed by it; e.g.: If a German would communicate anything to me, he must speak to me in English, as I would not be likely to understand him were he to address me in the German language. Hence, by speaking English, he would accommodate his language to me. But this is not all: he must use such English words as would embody the thought, otherwise I might still fail to understand him.

If he wanted to buy a horse of me, and he should say, “I want to sell you some goods to-day,” I would fail to understand him, because the idea of buying a horse is not in the words, “I want to sell goods.” Nor is this all: he would deceive me by using words calculated to convey one thought when he designed to convey another. Then when God substantially said to Abraham, “I will go down and see whether or not things are as reported to me; and if not, I will know” — if He meant that He had always seen and always known the things spoken of, we insist that the language used not only failed to be accommodated to the thought, but was calculated to make a false impression upon all before whom it might come. 



 Let us try a few other passages of like construction by the same accommodated rules of interpretation. In the same chapter from which we have quoted the language in question, God twice said to Abraham, by the mouths of the same angelic messengers, “I will return unto thee, according to the time of life, and Sarah shall have a son.” Vers. 10,14. Did God mean that He had already returned, and that Sarah had already been blessed with the promised son? Again: The Lord said to Abraham, “I will make thee exceeding fruitful.” Did He mean that Abraham had always been fruitful? “I will make nations of thee.”
Did He mean that nations had always been made of Abraham? “I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession.”  Did He mean that He had, from eternity, given the land of Canaan to Abraham? Once more: When Jesus said, “On this rock I will build my church” (Matt. xvi:18), did He mean that His church had always been built? If not, how can we accommodate the language “I will know” to the thought “I have always known?”

When Abraham, in obedience to the command of God, had placed his beloved son upon the sacrificial altar, and had stretched forth his hand, and taken the knife to slay his son, “the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham. And he said, Here am I. And he said, Lay not thy hand upon the lad, neither do thou anything unto him; for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, from me.” Gen. xxii:11, 12. What can this mean? “Now I know that thou fearest God.” Did He always know it? Nay, how did He then know it? “Seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, from me.” Does not this language imply that God saw in Abraham a degree of faithfulness unseen before? Paul says God tried Abraham here. Heb. xi:17. Why did God try him, if He knew perfectly well what Abraham would do before He tried him? But it is said that this trial of Abraham was to show him the strength of his own faith. Then God should have said, “Now you know you fear God, because you see you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” It occurs to us that an accommodation of language to thought would require a change like this.

Respecting the idolatry of the Jews, God, by the mouth of His prophet, said: “They have built the high places of Tophet which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire; which I commanded them not, neither came it into my heart.” Jer. vii:3l. Here were things done by men which the Lord said came not into His heart. Did He know from eternity that which never came into His heart? But we are told that this only means that it never entered into God’s heart to command the wickedness which they did. He plainly says He did not command it before using the words “neither came it into my heart.” Surely, something additional was implied by these words; if not, why use them at all? Let us examine the construction of the quotation. What did they do? They burnt their children. What was it which God commanded them not? That which they did. What was it that came not into the mind of the Lord? That which they did, the burning of their children. In the sentence, “Neither came it into my heart,” if the pronoun it does not refer to burning their sons and daughters in the fire, then we confess our inability to construe it at all. In another place the Lord said: “They have built also the high places of Baal, to burn their sons with fire, for burnt-offerings unto Baal, which I commanded not, nor spake it, neither came it into my mind.” Jer. xix:5. Let us examine the pronouns in this quotation. “Which I commanded them not.” To what does the relative which refer? To the act of burning their sons with fire. “Nor spake it.” To what does the pronoun it refer? That which they did, and were commanded not. “Neither came it into my mind.” Now, to what does this it refer? Certainly, to that which they did, which God commanded them not, nor spake it. Unless we take the liberty of adding to the word of the Lord, we see not how to construe the language otherwise. 

But we are told that these passages are explained by another: “They built the high places of Baal, which are in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to cause their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire unto Molech; which I commanded them not, neither came it into my mind, that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin.” Jer. xxxii:35. And how does this passage explain the other two?  Perhaps this is explained by the other two. If we understand the auxiliary should in the sense of would, then we have most perfect harmony in all of them. But it matters not which rendering is adopted here, for when the passages are all considered they abundantly show that it never entered into the mind of God that they either would or should do the things they did. Let it be remembered that Calvinism assumes that God eternally and immutably fore-ordained everything that comes to pass. It did come to pass that the Jews did these things; therefore, it follows that God fore-ordained that they should do them; and yet He says it never came into His mind that they should do them.  



In another part of the argument, we invoked the aid of Calvinists to explain how God fore-ordained that which never came into His mind. All must see that this is impossible, and hence God did not fore-ordain these things. Calvinism further assumes that whatever was foreknown was fore-ordained: then, as these abominations were not fore-ordained, it follows that they were not foreknown; hence, even from this standpoint, they never entered the mind of the Lord. Universalism is also
entangled in the meshes of this net, for it and Calvinism agree that all things foreknown were fore-ordained, and must come to pass accordingly. Let Universalists, therefore, join with Calvinists in showing how God fore-ordained that which never came into His mind; for whenever they admit that the foreknowledge of God does not amount to an immutable decree, and that things may turn out otherwise than as foreseen by God, then their argument drawn from the unlimited foreknowledge of God will have been exploded, and the strongest prop which ever gave support to Universalism will have been

When the children of Israel worshiped the golden calf made by Aaron at the foot of Sinai, the anger of the Lord was kindled against them, and He said to Moses, “Let me alone, that my wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them: and I will make of thee a great nation.” Ex. xxxii:10. Moses interceded for the people with arguments too powerful to be resisted. Said he, “Wherefore should the Egyptians speak and say, For mischief did he bring them out to slay them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth? Turn from thy fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against thy people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, thy servants, to whom thou swearest by thine own self, and saidst unto them, I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have spoken of will I give unto your seed, and they shall inherit it forever.” Vers. 12, 13. Was there ever a more powerful speech, of the same length uttered by mortal lips? He reminds the Lord of His deliverance of this people, and what His enemies would say of His motives in doing so — of His devoted servants whose children these were, and His oath of promise to them. This speech prevailed, “And the Lord repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people.” Ver. 14. Was the Lord deceptive in His pretensions of anger to Moses against the people? Were His threats of destruction all hypocrisy? The earnest appeals of Moses show that he did not so understand them; yet they were mere sound if He knew, when making them, that He would not execute them. But He repented of the evil which He thought to do unto His people, and did not do that which He thought He would do. But if He eternally foreknew everything that comes to pass, it follows that He foreknew He would not do this evil to His people; hence He knew He would not do that which He thought He would do. Can this be true? Is it possible to think we will do that which we know we will not do? Men sometimes say they think they will do that which they know, at the time, they will not do; but they do that which it is impossible for
God to do when they so speak. Surely, we should be slow to cast such an imputation upon the God we adore. The inspired Word is the measure of our faith; hence, when it says God thought He would do a thing, we accept it as true, feeling sure that no valid objection can be brought against it. The Book of God, to be worthy of its Author, must be harmonious in all its teaching. But the disciples of the Saviour once said to Him, “Now are we sure that thou knowest all things.” John xvi:30. And Peter once said, “Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee.” John xxi:17. Will the reader bear in mind that it is one thing to know all things, and quite another to foreknow all things — one thing to know a thing, and quite another thing to know a thing before it is a thing, or when it has no existence. If we make these texts prove that Jesus had unlimited foreknowledge of everything that has or will take place, we come in conflict with His own word, when he said, “Of that day and of that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the SON, but the Father.” Mark xiii:32. Now, here is one thing which it is certain he did not know; hence the fact that Jesus knew all things did not imply that He foreknew everything. But John said, “God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all
things.” 1 John iii:20. Yes, and in just as strong terms he said to his brethren, “Ye have an unction from the Holy One, and ye know all things.” 1 John ii:20. Then, if the fact that God knows all things proves that He foreknew all things, the same language proves that the disciples to whom John wrote also had unlimited foreknowledge! Does anyone believe this? Then the language has no application to foreknowledge whatever. Further: There is no fact more clearly established than that the word all is often used in the Bible to indicate a great amount or a great number, when it must not be understood without limit; e.g.: It is said that all the people in a certain region were baptized by John, and yet many rejected the counsel of God against themselves by not being so baptized. And even the very words all things are used in a limited sense. Paul says charity “beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.” 1 Cor. xiii:7. Are we to believe all things, whether true or false? Surely not.

Then the sum of John’s teaching was that his brethren, having an unction from the Holy One, know all things about which he was writing to them. Then we shall continue to believe that our Heavenly Father had power to limit the exercise of His knowledge to an extent compatible with the free-agency and accountability of man and the scheme of salvation devised for him, until we are shown a more excellent way. This being so, neither Calvinism nor Universalism can be sustained by their long-cherished hobby, unlimited “foreknowledge;” but how they will be successfully met by those who admit it, is more than we can foreknow. We must see it done, then we will, perhaps, know how it has been done. When we wrote the foregoing we were not aware of a single authority, save the Bible, from which we might derive the slightest encouragement; since we sent it to press, however, we have found an article from the pen of Dr. Adam Clarke, from which we make the following very significant extract; not because there is anything additional in it, but that our readers may see that we are, at least, in good company: “As God’s omnipotence implies his power to do all things, so God’s omniscience implies his power to know all things; but we must take heed that we meddle not with the infinite free-agency of this Eternal Being. Though God can do all things, he does not all things. Infinite judgment directs the operations of his power, so that though he can, yet he does not do all things, but only such things as are proper to be done. In what is called illimitable space, he can make millions of millions of systems, but he does not see proper to do this. He can destroy the solar system, but he does not do it: he can fashion and order, in endless variety, all the different beings which now exist, whether material, animal, or intellectual; but he does not do this, because He does not see it proper to be done. Therefore, it does not follow that, because God can do all things, therefore he must do all things.


God is omniscient, and can know all things, but does it follow from this that he must know all things? Is he not as free in the volitions of his wisdom as he is in the volitions of his power? The contingent as absolute, or the absolute as contingent? God has ordained some things as absolutely certain: these he knows as absolutely certain. He has ordained other things as contingent: these he knows as contingent. It would be absurd to say that he foreknows a thing as only contingent which he has made absolutely certain. And it would be as absurd to say that he foreknows a thing to be absolutely certain which, in his own eternal counsel, he has made contingent. By “absolutely certain” I mean a thing which must be in that order, time, place, and form, in which Divine wisdom has ordained it to be; and that it can be not otherwise than this infinite counsel has ordained. By “contingent,” I mean such things as the infinite wisdom of God has thought proper to poise on the possibility of being or not being, leaving it to the will of intelligent beings to turn the scale. Or contingencies are such possibilities, amid the succession of events, as the infinite wisdom of God has left to the will of intelligent beings to determine, whether any such event shall take place or not. To deny this would involve the most palpable contradictions, and the most monstrous absurdities. If there be no such things as contingencies in the world, then everything is fixed and determined by an unalterable decree and purpose of God, and not only all free-agency is destroyed, but all agency of every kind, except that of the Creator himself, for on this ground God is the only operator, either in time or eternity: all created beings are only instruments, and do nothing but as impelled and acted upon by this almighty and sole Agent. Consequently, every act is his own, for if he have purposed them all as absolutely certain, having nothing contingent in them, then he has ordained them to be so; and if no contingency, then no free-agency, and God alone is the sole actor. Hence the blasphemous, though, from the premises, fair conclusion, that God is the author of all the evil and sin that are in the world, and hence follows that absurdity — that, as God can do nothing that is wrong, WHATEVER IS, IS RIGHT. Sin is no more sin, a vicious human action is no crime, if God have decreed it, and by his foreknowledge and will impelled the creature to act it. On this ground there can be no punishment for delinquencies, for if everything be done as God has predetermined — and his determinations must necessarily be all right — then neither the instrument nor the agent has done wrong. Thus all vice and virtue, praise and blame, merit and demerit, guilt and innocence, are at once confounded, and all distinctions of this kind confounded with them.  


Now, allowing the doctrine of the contingency of human actions (and it must be allowed in order to shun the above absurdities and blasphemies), then we see every intelligent creature accountable for its own works, and for the use it makes of the power with which God has endued it; and, to grant all this consistently, we must also grant that God foresees nothing as absolutely and inevitably certain which he has made contingent; and because he has designed it to be contingent therefore he cannot know it as absolutely and inevitably certain. I conclude that God, although omniscient, is not obliged, in consequence of this, to know all that he can know, no more than he is obliged, because he is omnipotent, to do all that he can do.” Commentary on Acts ii:47.

Although Dr. Clarke offers not a single scriptural quotation or reference in proof of the positions taken, yet we regard his reasoning upon the attributes of God, and the bearing of foreknowledge upon the free-agency and accountability of man, as simply irresistible. We have long entertained these views, but have never preached them from the pulpit, nor until now given them to the press. We were forced to them while preparing for a debate with a Universalist, some twenty years ago, since which we have studied the subject, until a position then cautiously taken has become a settled conviction. We feel strengthened by finding ourselves in company with a man of such power as Dr. Clarke. 


[This if from The Gospel Plan of Salvation (1874).  A special thanks to Lindsay England for her hard work in formatting this sermon.]

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God’s Sevenfold Unity – Jerry Cutter

Repentance – J. W. McGarvey


The Ancient Faith website is a thematic collection of scholarly yet simple Bible essays and sermons, many of which were composed by Restoration preachers such as J.W. McGarvey, Moses Lard, Benjamin Franklin, and Alexander Campbell. These courageous men of faith through hours of Bible investigation studied themselves out of denominationalism, asking for “the old paths” (Jer. 6:16) and seeking to return to “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). We hope you will join with these men in their fervent plea to restore “the ancient order,” “the ancient gospel” or, as it was sometimes called, “the ancient faith.”