The Scriptures tell us:

The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead. – Acts 17:30–31 ESV (emphasis mine)

And yet:

...the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. – Matthew 7:14 ESV

The unavoidable conclusion is that most people that hear the call to repentance, either ignore, resist or reject it (this sadly, also accords with our experience).

A common Reformed argument* (e.g.) against the doctrine of General Atonement, is that a non-efficacious (in terms of its intended scope) Atonement is not consistent with the Sovereignty of God – on the surface, a reasonable argument, particularly from a Reformed perspective of the Sovereignty of God that rests on Unconditional Election and Irresistable Grace. From a Reformed perspective, how is a non-efficacious (again, in terms of its intended scope) call to repentance any different in this respect? Why isn't that equally inconsistent with the Sovereignty of God?

If a King bids a man to come, and the man comes not, is this not an affront to the King's sovereignty?

*Edit: Ok, so maybe it's not as common as I thought, and possibly not strictly logical, but here is some evidence that it is advanced by people who should be able to articulate a consistent position:

  • "Unlimited atonement is inconsistent with the sovereignty of God." - Rev. Steven Houck, Immanuel Protestant Reformed Church Lacombe, Alberta. source

  • "Proponents of limited atonement often make a fifth argument, which is that unlimited atonement cannot be reconciled with God's sovereignty." - p200 Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach By Kenneth Keathley. source

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    Is this a question about the different wills of God?
    – curiousdannii
    Jun 2, 2014 at 5:18
  • @curiousdannii It would certainly be related to that, I don't really understand how God can have two wills that seem in variance with one another to be honest - I would like someone to explain the Reformed perspective on that as it relates to this particular issue. Jun 2, 2014 at 7:52
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    @Zoe I'm not trying to define Sovereignty, my question in a different form is this: Given that the Reformed definition of Sovereignty leads to limited (as opposed to general) atonement (if you wish to dispute this, go ahead and I'll stand corrected), why doesn't the Reformed definition of Sovereignty lead to a limited (as opposed to general) call to repentence? Jun 2, 2014 at 12:33
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    @Zoe Or another way yet again: Why is opposing the will of God in regard to the former (i.e. rebellious man making the precious blood shed for him of no effect toward his salvation) impossible, but possible with the latter (ignoring, resisting or rejecting the call to repentence)? If you find any of these re-formulations more clear, please let me know and I can edit my question accordingly. Jun 2, 2014 at 12:34

3 Answers 3


To understand the Reformed approach to this challenging question, we should begin with the concept of the "wills" of God. Reformed theologians typically refer to the relevant ones as the decretive (or "secret") and preceptive (or "revealed") wills of God, which R. C. Sproul defines as follows:

Decretive will: The sovereign, efficacious will of God
Preceptive will: The precepts, commands of God1

Reformed theologians point to a number of passages to establish this distinction. For the decretive will, here are a few examples:

Psalm 115:3: Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases. [ESV]
Daniel 4:32: the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will.
Romans 9:18: So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.

These passages describe a will of God that never fails and is independent of all other beings. But God's will is not always described in such terms:

Matthew 7:21: "Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven." [cf. Matthew 12:50]
Ephesians 5:17: Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.

In these passages, it's clear that God's will refers to his commands and precepts, not his ordaining of events. The distinction is especially obvious when we consider biblical stories like that of Joseph being sold into slavery:

"As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today." [Genesis 50:20]

In this story, God's preceptive will is that Joseph's brothers love him and not sell him into slavery, as such an act is "evil." But God's decretive will was that Joseph be sold into slavery by his brothers so that many would survive the famine. Another example of this can be found in Acts 2:23, in which the "definite plan of God" (his decretive will) involved a clear violation of his preceptive will: his Son was killed by "lawless men."

Is the call of the Gospel part of God's preceptive will or his decretive will?

Turning now to God's will as it relates to the call of the Gospel, we must identify which "will" of God applies to passages like Matthew 11:28, in which Jesus commands people to come to him:

"Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest."

Similarly, 1 Timothy 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9 can be interpreted to refer to God's desire that all be saved.2

If this "desire" is a product of God's decretive will, then it would necessarily follow that all people will be saved. However, such an interpretation implies universalism, which seems to contradict other passages, like Romans 9:18 and Matthew 7:21 (quoted above), among many others. This desire that all be saved, therefore, cannot be God's decretive will, and so it must be his preceptive will. The commands to repent and believe are thus in the same category as the command to care for the poor: men can and do regularly disobey them.

How can a sovereign God allow his preceptive will to be violated?

Now we get to the heart of the issue, and hopefully it's now obvious that to the Reformed, this isn't merely a matter of explaining how man can reject the external call of the gospel—it's the broader issue of explaining the existence of evil. That is, we can reframe the titular question as, "How can [a good] God be sovereign if man can sin?"

This is, of course, a huge topic, which I've addressed more fully elsewhere. But ultimately Reformed theologians, while arguing that God is not the author of sin, and that man fell voluntarily, nonetheless hold that God ordained that sin would come into the world. That is, God's decretive will includes the sins of men, including their sins of unrepentance and unbelief.

Why would a good God do this? Charles Hodge suggests the following explanation, based on Romans 9:22–23:

Sin, therefore, according the Scriptures, is permitted, that the justice of God may be known in its punishment, and his grace in its forgiveness. And the universe, without the knowledge of these attributes, would be like the earth without the light of the sun.3

  1. Sproul, What is Reformed Theology?, p169
  2. Some Calvinists argue that the context in each of these verses does not require that "all" refer to every human being, but others consider that a possibility.
  3. Hodge, Systematic Theology, 1.5.13, page 435

The reformed view would believe both those types of verses you have quoted but would add a third type to ensure the whole picture in presented:

"For many are called, but few are chosen." (ESV Matt 22:14)

So what we have are three things:

  • God offers the gospel to all
  • Only some respond
  • Those who do respond are 'the elect'

God is sovereign in his unalterable decree that all predestined will be called and saved. People who reject the general call do not contradict God's sovereignty just as the Devil who always rejects God's will does not contradict God's sovereignty.

Regarding the concept of limited atonement, the idea is more along the lines that although Christ is offered to all and his death is capable of forgiving all, technically his death was theoretically/speculatively only for some in this sense: God punished actual sins in Christ not conceptual ones so it only the elect that he technically dies for. God would be punishing sins twice in the case of those who do not believe and who bear there on built in eternity which contradicts his omniscience not his sovereignty.

'Effectual calling' by the Spirit does not override human will it only persuades free choice to be directed infallibly. This means a believer may have first heard about the call many times (and rejected it) but then at God's timing His spirit made the call effectual making such a strong impression o the mind that humanly speaking one can't resist. Imagine that a poor person on the street was given 1,000,000 dollars. How many would refuse it? Well there might be a few percentage, but then what if you knew what else they really wanted and offered that as well? Eventually the offer would be irresistible to every person. Yet each person theoretically could still refuse the offer but nobody would. That is kind of what is imagined in the effectual call, God offers free agents a gift and by His Spirit makes the glory of it very clear to the mind making every man unable to resist the free choice of receiving it.

  • Thanks Mike! A very much to-the-point answer. Would you go so far as to say that people who argue that general atonement is inconsistent with His sovereignty are wrong to do so? Jun 2, 2014 at 13:49
  • @bruisedreed This answer is the closest to what I meant. I was on my phone so could not do a well rounded research. I think the 'people who argue against...' just got the general idea of sovereignty wrong. God is infallible but He gave us freewill, too.
    – Zoe
    Jun 2, 2014 at 13:54
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    @bruisedreed - I do not see how it makes sense. To be honest I have read arguments for limited atonement and it had more to do with the practical aspects of omniscience and justice in punishing sin. I do not recall sovereignty having anything to do with it (aside from of course that the elect will be saved no matter what). Maybe sovereignty is brought in by those who explain 'why' some are chosen but I am the breed of reformer that does not attempt to explain the 'why' but reserves that point to the unknowable from a human standpoint. (A little more like Luther then Calvin on this point).
    – Mike
    Jun 2, 2014 at 13:59
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    @bruisedreed, Calvinistic predestination is double. As far as I know, Hyper-Calvinism is not directly related to this.
    – adipro
    Jun 30, 2014 at 23:41

God's "perceptive" will assumes that God only commands us to do something we could do if we wanted to. True. But this does not tell us why someone may or may not want to obey. Whether or not we want to obey depends upon whether or not God gives us grace to obey. Everyone is either receiving the grace to obey God's commands to the church or not. There is nothing between these two possibilities where neither of these is true.
God remains preeminent over whether we obey His commands to the church or not because this sort of obedience requires grace and only God can give grace.
God's Law drives us to the cross. God's plan was that we would need the cross."Perceptive will" suggests the possibility that we might not have needed the cross if we had been a bit more careful or sensible i.e. it was up us and not God. Our failure is compounded by the assumption that we might have done anything autonomously.
The human will is not free of having been made, being controlled [Mat 28:18] and being sustained in all its actions [Heb1:3] by God.

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