Regarding “grace” and “justice” Crisp writes,
“The two notions are distinct. God may act in a gracious manner towards his creatures, but he need not act in this way, and there can be no requirement for him to do so, because it is of the nature of an act of grace that it is free and not obligatory. By contrast, divine justice is inexorable and must be satisfied on an Augustinian way of thinking. It cannot be set aside, passed over, or abrogated . . . If salvation is a work of divine grace, then God could create a world where no one is saved and this would be consistent with his divine goodness.” (pp. 16–17)To what extent is this so?
The grammar of “grace” (and “mercy”) and of “justice” does differ in the way that Crisp suggests. Take mercy. An act of mercy is not owed. God is under no obligation to the object of mercy to show mercy. He has not failed in any obligation to the sinner, say, if he does not show mercy. Quite so.
But it may still be the case that there remains a sense in which God does “need” to act mercifully towards the sinner. Not because he needs to show mercy in order to fulfil some obligation to the sinner (the sinner cannot be owed mercy—such a notion is absurd) but perhaps it is the case that it is God’s “nature always to have mercy.” Perhaps it is the case that God is the kind of God who, to be true to himself, “needs” to show mercy. So it is imaginable that mercy is also necessary for God in spite of the fact that its necessity is not identical to the necessity of justice.
Whether that is so would be to be considered more carefully. My point is that the distinction made by Crisp, though valid, does not by itself allow us to conclude that God could, even in theory, create a world in which he failed to save any/some/most/all. Perhaps such a world is indeed impossible given the perfection of the divine nature. God is a merciful God. If he did not show mercy to anyone, while he would not have failed in any obligations to sinners, such a scenario would make the claim that “God is merciful” false. My theological instincts react against that idea.
My second concern is whether a world in which God saved no one is compatible with his goodness. Here I suppose that it depends on what one means by “goodness.” If one holds that “God is good” means no more than “God carries out all his ‘obligations’” (or something like that) then not saving any is compatible with goodness. But this seems a somewhat minimalist understanding of “goodness.” In Scripture God’s goodness seems to be a more robust notion that this. If God does not save anyone then he may not have failed in any obligation to sinners (who cannot “claim” salvation as a right!) but has he actually shown goodness to sinners? And if he has not shown goodness to sinners is he really good in any robust sense?
I anticipate that this comment will elicit the response that God may have shown goodness to sinners in the form of common grace but not in the form of saving grace.
My first thought is that the logic of the Calvinist argument would lead one to say that God's failure to show even common grace to any sinners (for it too is not owed) is compatible with his goodness. So this response does not get to the heart of the problem (i.e., that God can be good without being good to anyone). But let's set that aside for now.
I suppose that in this scenario God has indeed been good to sinners — I have no intention of minimalizing common grace — even though he saves none of them. However, whilst he would have been good, he has not been GOOD. Saving them from eternal destruction is an act of greater goodness than making their lives here and now, on balance, good. So I guess that my point is that God’s goodness is a great, divine goodness and it is this robust goodness God must show to sinners to be true to himself.
Suppose that God has two sons dying of cancer (as a result of their own fault). God would be showing undeserved goodness to them to give them food and drink and friends, etc., but, of course, it is within God's power to heal them and to heal them is an act of even greater goodness. My point would then be this: if God showed common grace to all but saving grace to none then that may be consistent with his goodness but does not seem compatible with his GOODNESS. We may be inclined to say that God is good but not that he is GOOD.
This objection is compounded significantly if we move the discussion from divine goodness to divine love. (It is interesting that Crisp's article discusses the compatibility of hell with divine goodness but has no discussion of its compatibility with divine love. Yet surely love is a fundamental divine attribute as far as Christians are concerned.) Can we say that God is, in his very nature, love if, having chosen to create the world, he fails to love sinners? Here is my own view — no. But that is a discussion for another day.