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James Henly Thornwell on God’s General Love and Matthew 5:44-55

April 29, 2008

In this tract, James Henly Thornwell was clearly influenced by men like Turretin, in that he reads such verses as Eze 18:23, John 3:16, 1 Timothy 2:4, and 2 Peter 3:9,1 and 1 John 2:2, in a strict particularist manner.2 These two extracts are cited here to demonstrate the historicity of the Reformed Doctrine of General love, and the standard association made by many Reformed between that doctrine and Matthew 5:45.


1) The doctrine of election is supposed to be inconsistent with the sincerity of God in the general invitations and call of the Gospel, and with His professions of willingness that all should be saved. It is true that this doctrine is wholly irreconcilable with the idea of a fixed determination on the part of God to save, indiscriminately, the whole human race. The plain doctrine of the Presbyterian Church is that God has no purpose of salvation for all, and that He has not decreed that faith, repentance and holiness, and the eternal blessings of the Gospel, should be efficaciously applied to all. The necessary consequence of such a decree would be universal salvation. The Scriptures, which are supposed to prove that God sent His Son into the world with the specific intention of saving all without exception or limitation, it confidently believed, teach, when correctly interpreted, no such doctrine. It is often forgotten that love is ascribed to God under two or three different aspects. Sometimes it expresses the complacency and approbation with which He views the graces which His own Spirit has produced in the hearts of His children; and in this sense it is plain that God can be said to love only the saints. It is probably in this sense that the term love is to be understood in Jude’s exhortation: “Keep yourselves in the love of God.” Sometimes God’s benevolence or general mercy is intended, such as He bestows upon the just and the unjust, the evil and the good, as in Psalms cxlv. 9: “The Lord is good to all, and His tender mercies are over all His works.” The common bounties of Providence may be referred to this head. Sometimes it expresses that peculiar and distinguishing favour with which He regarded His elect from all eternity. In this sense, the love of God is always connected with the purpose of salvation. Again, the word sometimes denotes nothing more than God’s willingness to be reconciled to sinners in and through Christ. In regard to the love of complacency or approbation, it is manifest at once that unconverted sinners have no lot nor part in it. God is angry with them every day; ” He hateth all workers of iniquity.” The special love of God is confined exclusively to the elect. The general benevolence of God is common, but it implies no purpose of salvation at all; and therefore, in that sense, God may be said to love the reprobate and disobedient. Even the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction are borne with in much long-suffering and patience. In reference to the last, it is plain that God may be heartily willing to save sinners in and through Christ–may determine to save all, in other words, who receive the Saviour–without positively decreeing to create in all men the necessary faith. In this sense, therefore, God may be said to love sinners, for whom, however, He has no purpose of salvation. James Henly Thornwell, Election and Reprobation (Jackson, Mississippi: Presbyterian Reformation Society, 1961), 57-58.

2) In regard to the passages of the first class, it is manifest that where the universal epithets are to be taken in their full latitude–which, however, is not always the case–nothing more can be fairly deduced than God’s benevolence, which leads Him to bestow blessings upon all men. There is nothing specific about the character or nature of the blessings, or whenever anything specific is stated it is found to be only the common bounties of Providence that the sacred writer had immediately in view. How preposterous, therefore, from such texts to deduce a purpose of universal salvation, as though God could not send rain upon the wicked and unjust without designing to save them! It is vain to allege that such general goodness is never referred to God’s love. The Saviour settles the point Matthew v. 44, 45. There He commands His disciples to love their enemies, to bless them that curse them, to do good to them that hate them, etc. Why? “That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven; for He maketh His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” Here the disciples are commanded to love their enemies, that they might be like God. But how does it appear that God loves His enemies? “He maketh his to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust;” in other words, in other words, from the common bounties of Providence. With such a plain illustration bf the fact that God can be said to love without intending to save, it is amazing that such passages as the following should ever have been adduced to prove a purpose of universal salvation: “The Lord is good to all, and His tender mercies are over all His works.” I would as soon think of appealing to Romans ix. 22, because God is there said to have endured the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction with much long-suffering. James Henly Thornwell, Election and Reprobation (Jackson, Mississippi: Presbyterian Reformation Society, 1961), 62.


1On 2 Peter 3:9, Thornwell does note and acknowledge Calvin’s unlimited reading of this verse. Further, Thornwell grants that the unlimited reading does not violate the text exegetically, but that he thinks his reading is more congruent to Peter’s intent.
2On the Ezekiel passages, Thornwell overplays Turretin’s stress on the revealed will as a passive delight. And for 1 Timothy 2:4, John 3;16, 1 John 2:2, oddly enough, Thornwell connects these verses with the offer of the gospel as if that satisfies the force of the inherent universality within the terms of these verses.



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