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Book review
The Two Wills of God —
Does God really have two wills?

C. Matthew McMahon, The Two Wills of God — Does God really have two wills? (New Lenox, IL, USA: Puritan Publications, 2005). ISBN: 0-9765336-0-X


This book is McMahon's doctoral dissertation, on the topic of the will of God in relation to salvation, God's intention in salvation, and the topic of Common Grace as embraced by many who call themselves reformed over the last century. More specifically, it addresses the topic of "common grace", the "well-meant or free offer", the will of God towards the elect and the reprobate, and of course the proclamation of the Gospel.

The chapters of this book are:



Chapter 1: The Right Use of Logic
Chapter 2: Archetypal and Ectypal Knowledge
Chapter 3: The Will of God
Chapter 4: The Will of God and the Elect
Chapter 5: The Will of God and the Reprobate
Chapter 6: The Will of God and Common Grace
Chapter 7: Exegetical Analysis of Key Passages Appealing to Common Grace and the Will of God
Chapter 8: The Hypothesis of the Continuum
Chapter 9: The Eternal Counsel of God and His Will
Chapter 10: The Will of God, The Call of the Gospel, and the Reprobate
Chapter 11: St. Augustine: The Will and Actions of God in Providence, Election and Reprobation
Chapter 12: John Calvin: The Doctrine of Election and Reprobation
Chapter 13: William Perkins, The Will of God, and the Foundation for Puritan Theology
Chapter 14: Francis Turretin: The Truth, the Will of God, and the Reprobation of Men
Chapter 15: John Owen and the Will of God
Chapter 16: Jonathan Edwards: The Plight of the Wicked and the Certainty of God's Decrees
Chapter 17: The Creeds and Confessions of the Early Church
Chapter 18: How shall we preach the Gospel?
Chapter 19: Are there Two Wills in God or not?

Appendix: R.L. Dabney and the Will of God

In his work, McMahon deals with the nature of logic and truth in chapters 1-2, disagreeing with Van Til's idea of paradox and stating that, while God is incomprehensible and thus truth can transcend reason, it cannot be contradictory. Chapters 3-5 has McMahon elucidating his concepts, which he extrapolates from Francis Turretin, of the compound and divided senses, and applying them to the topic of election and reprobation. McMahon then dealt with the idea of "common grace" in chapter 6, stating that grace is found in a person and therefore there is no such thing as common grace, although he affirms the common providence of God. Chapter 7 shows the exegesis of key texts concerning the will of God, showing how the will of God for salvation of all only makes sense in the divided sense, or the "all" is restricted to the elect. In chapter 10, McMahon presses his point on applying the compound and divided senses to explain the universal call of the Gospel and how it is to be squared with the decree of reprobation.

Chapters 11-17 constitute a historical survey of the views of major theologians and Reformed confessions on the matter, showing how their views are congruent with some form of the compound and divided senses, or that they did not hold to the two wills theory, or what McMahon sees as the common grace theory. Chapter 18 is more of a practical theology missive on how one ought to preach in light of all this. Here, McMahon correctly states that preaching is "in the human perspective," "setting Christ forth before men who knew little or no theology at all," and that preachers do not "have to explain all [their] theology every time [they preach], making meticulous distinctions between the compound and divided senses" (p. 488). Chapter 19 summarizes McMahon's case, while the Appendix states his disagreement with R.L. Dabney as someone who is trying to put all his chess pieces on one overcrowded board.


There are three questions here: One, are there two wills of God? McMahon's answer to that question is no, but the one will of God has two senses, the compound sense and the divided sense. Two, is there a sincere offer to all men of God desiring their salvation? McMahon's answer is God sincerely desires the salvation of all in the divided sense, but not in the compound sense. Three, is there common grace, defined as a disposition in God towards the well-being of the reprobate? McMahon's answer is no, but there is indiscriminate providence towards both the elect and reprobate.

Compound and Divided Senses

So what exactly are the compound and divided senses? The compound sense is "God's interpretation of His own being given to us in the condescended language of the Bible" (p. 507), while the divided sense is "the revelation of God in the realm where perspective of man would be used" (p. 74), or "the human view of God seen through the historical narrative and written letters of the Bible" (p. 507). The descriptions of these senses more closely match the divine and human perspectives, as revealed for us, respectively. These two senses, since they operate on different planes, are not contradictory, functioning like pieces on two different boards of chess (p. 77). If however, one were to collapse the two senses into each other, one would operate with a very crowded "board" and justice would not be done to all the truths of Scripture. In this light, the PRCA (Protestant Reformed Churches of America) according to McMahon would not escape the charge of Hyper-Calvinism because they fail to differentiate the two senses (p. 82). Likewise, the primary opponents of McMahon's thesis, the sub-Reformed teaching concerning the two wills of God, "common grace" and the well-meant offer of effectual grace, are guilty of the same failure to do justice to the full teaching of Scripture.

How should we think of McMahon's differentiation of the compound and divided senses? The terms are coined by him of course, but the concepts seem to be helpful. We most certainly must hold to God's simplicity so God cannot have two wills, and the division between the compound and divided senses help us to preserve the one will and also to note how God's will is expressed differently, which traditionally is stated as the difference between the preceptive and the decretive wills. What is traditionally known as the "preceptive will" can be thus expressed as the divided sense of God's will while the "decretive will" as the compound sense of God's will.

Aside from the heuristic benefits in differentiating the two senses, the terms themselves ("compound" and "divided") are rather cumbersome. While helpful, I do not believe they go far enough in showing us in what manner the compound sense convey God's interpretation relayed to us, and in what manner the divided sense convey the human view as shown by God. The technical fine line will certainly be lost to most people. To this, I think that bringing in the notion of corporate or federal identity would be more helpful. Instead of leaving it as the compound sense, why not we understand that as the sense towards individuals, towards particular individuals? Instead of leaving as the divided sense, why not we understand it as towards the collective, as an expression of God's principles?

The compound sense speaks about God's interpretation, and thus its locality is in God's intention and desire. It is analogous to the decretive will, which is what God desires and enacts and decrees. It is thus what God will do to individuals, in particular election and reprobation. It seems that the three can be placed side by side as analogous ways of looking at God's will as what God desires: Compound sense - Decretive (Sovereign) - Particular.

The divided sense speaks about the human view, and thus its locality is in God's commands showing forth His nature. It is analogous to the preceptive will, which is what should be done to be congruent with God's ethical nature. It is thus also what God would see as being perfective for all corporately, in covenant solidarity. Side by side the three are to be seen as analogous ways of looking at God's will as flowing from what is perfect: Divided sense - Preceptive - Collective (Federal)

For simplification, we can say that God wills something for the whole (collective) that is realized for the part (Particular). This I think is a good and biblical and simpler way of understanding the compound and divided sense, from another point of view.

Free and/or well-meant offer of the Gospel

McMahon sees correctly that holding to an idea that God sincerely desires and wills something (the repentance of the reprobate) which "he has not been pleased to decree"[1] is to put forward two contradictory propositions (pp. 31-4). The offer of the Gospel is "sincere" or "well-meant" because God is not lying when He issues the proclamation or invitation for sinners to come and believe in Christ (p. 306, 311, 317) . But it says nothing about what God intends or desires, contrary to what neo-Amyraldians think. Accordingly, the OPC Minority Report on the Free Offer for the 15th General Assembly of 1948 repudiates the irrational nonsense of the "Free Offer" as articulated by John Murray and Ned Stonehouse (The Majority Report).[2] There is a genuine offer of the Gospel, but this offer is a presentation of the Gospel to all, and predicates nothing whatsoever of what God intends of desires. As McMahon states, "The Puritans and reformers used “offerre” in the sense that the Gospel was a proclamation, or invitation to come and believe on Christ, the Savior." (p. 306)

McMahon attacks the revisionist idea of the "Free Offer." But should we or should we not use that particular term "free offer"? Or how about the term "well-meant offer"? Since these terms do not have fixed definitions, it is not possible to say whether these terms should or shouldn't be used. It seems that, depending on what one means by the phrases, one could or could not hold to the "free offer" or the "well-meant offer." Nevertheless, it seems best that based upon the makeup of words in the phrases, the term "free offer" could be used since the predicate "free" emphasizes that the offer is open to everyone without price, whereas it seems that the term "well-meant offer" is liable to interpretation according to neo-Amyraldism as focusing on God's intent on the offer being to genuinely save everyone. Thus, it seems wise to reject the usage of the phrase "well-meant offer" or "sincere offer" while preserving the more neutral "free offer." For my personal usage, I would use "free offer" for the biblical and orthodox view of the offer, and "well-meant offer" for the Neo-Amyraldian view of the offer.

As an aside, the Neo-Amyraldian view of the offer is that God genuinely desires in His emotions to save everyone both elect and reprobate. The reason why it is called "Neo-Amyraldian" is because, in the classical Amyraldian scheme, the decree to elect comes logically after the decree to provide universal atonement. This idea of God desiring to save everyone, and then having a "subsequent" sovereign will as it were to save only the elect, sounds very much like classical Amyraldism with its idea of God providing atonement to all but then electing only some to salvation.

Common grace

What exactly is "common grace"? That is a question that is more confusing than the answers, for it seems that everyone has their own definition of what "common grace" is. McMahon puts forward a definition of "common grace" that is probably embraced by many. According to him, and summarizing Louis Berkhof's idea of "General Common Grace,[3] "common grace" refers to "good gifts to the wicked" from the Holy Spirit to all men indiscriminately (pp. 112-3). McMahon did not mention this, but Berkhof did make it clear that the phrase itself (at least its initial iteration) is a late development from Abraham Kuyper and Kuyperians like Herman Bavinck.[4] McMahon also gave another definition of "common grace" later in his work, which is probably held by some Neo-Kuyperians and is more heterodox, that "common grace" leads or even prepares men for special grace unto salvation (p. 460). This "natural light" definition of "common grace" is so obviously contrary to Scripture we can discount it altogether and deal with the more general version stated above.

McMahon rejects "common grace" while affirming God's indiscriminate providence to all. In other words, McMahon affirms the substance of God's goodness while denying this goodness the appellative "grace." McMahon's main point here is to state that grace is not in things but grace is always "being in Christ" (p. 128). If grace is always grace "in Christ," then certainly it would sound strange to state that the reprobate who are outside of Christ can partake of this grace. Thus, McMahon makes his case that God's indiscriminate providence does provide good to men but it is not grace.

What are we to say in response? To be sure, if grace is only found in Christ, then of course there is no such thing as "common grace." And we would certainly agree with the content of the goodness God has given to all men including His restraint of sin. But what exactly is grace? Of course we affirm the notion of saving grace, but can we say there is a grace that is not salvific?

Here, I think a look at the Noahic Covenant is in order. Under this covenant (Gen. 9:1-17), we see no promise of salvation from sin but merely the preservation of the creation order. [This is different from the covenant of Genesis 6:18-21 which is a salvation covenant from the Flood]. As it is in the context of a covenant, grace is certainly involved. While it can be argued that there is a salvific event that happened just prior to the making of this covenant, still the covenant parties include all living creatures (Gen. 9:12) and thus animals, which are not saved. Therefore, it seems that limiting "grace" to only being in Christ is too restrictive.

The phrase "common grace" therefore I think is a valid phrase and describes a valid doctrine, only insofar as it is limited to the blessings of the Noahic Covenant. That said, since the Noahic Covenant has regard to earthly realities only and is thus penultimate, the end result is the same as McMahon's case in denying any idea that God has any salvific intent or desire of any kind towards the reprobate.


McMahon seeks to prove three main points. One, God does not have two wills, but rather one will with two senses: compound and divided. Two, there is an offer of the Gospel, but it is not a "free offer." Three, there is indiscriminate providence which consists of most of the substance of "common grace" in its more generic definition, but it is not really grace. McMahon has done a masterful job on each of them. Nevertheless, I demur on some of the points. I agree with the two senses of God's will while putting forward what I see as a better way of understanding them; I think that one can use the phrase "free offer" while agreeing with McMahon's points of critique; and I disagree that the word "grace" should not be used since there is grace in the Noahic Covenant.

But back to the main question: Are there two wills in God? No, and I think McMahon has proven that beyond a shadow of a doubt.


[1] John Murray and Ned Stonehouse, The Free Offer (Phillipsburg N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1979), 26

[2] "The Free Offer of the Gospel," Report for the 15th General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Accessed at (Aug 16, 2016)

[3] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 435. In Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology: New Combined Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996).

[4] Ibid., 434