10 Things You should Know about God’s Will(s)
There is a reason I said God’s “Will(s)” (plural) instead of God’s “will” (singular). My focus in this installment of 10 things you should know is the question of whether or not there are two senses in which God may be said to “will” something.
(1) The first thing we should remember is that in one sense God’s “will” is irresistible and cannot be frustrated or ultimately overcome. We see this in texts such as these:
“I know that You can do all things, and that no purpose [or willing] of Yours can be thwarted” (Job 42:2).
“All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, but He does according to His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of earth; and no one can ward off His hand or say to Him, ‘What have you done?’” (Dan. 4:35).
“But our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases” (Ps. 115:3; cf. Eph. 1:11).
(2) We are also told that God “wills” that all be saved (1 Tim. 2:4) and that all “come to repentance” (2 Pt. 3:9). How do we reconcile these seemingly contradictory statements? The answer is found in a distinction between God’s preceptive will and his decretive will.
Consider Exodus 4:21-23 and the hardening of Pharaoh's heart. God, through Moses, will command Pharaoh to let the people go. That is God's preceptive will, i.e., his will of precept or command. It is what God says should happen. Others refer to this as God's revealed will or his moral will. But God also says he will harden Pharaoh's heart so that he will refuse to let the people go. That is God's decretive will, i.e., his will of decree or purpose. It is what God has ordained shall happen. It is also called his hidden will or sovereign will or efficient will. “Thus what we see [in Exodus] is that God commands that Pharaoh do a thing that God himself wills not to allow. The good thing that God commands he prevents. And the thing he brings about involves sin” (John Piper, "Are There Two Wills in God?" 114).
(3) God's decretive will refers to the secret, all-encompassing divine purpose according to which he foreordains whatsoever comes to pass. His preceptive will refers to the commands and prohibitions in Scripture. One must reckon with the fact that God may decree what he has forbidden. That is to say, his decretive will may have ordained that event x shall occur, whereas Scripture, God's preceptive will, orders that event x should not occur. John Frame put it this way:
“God’s will is sometimes thwarted because he wills it to be, because he has given one of his desires precedence over another” (No Other God, 113).
“God does not intend to bring about everything he values, but he never fails to bring about what he intends” (113).
(4) To put it as simply as possible: God is often pleased to ordain his own displeasure.
(5) Perhaps the best example of the two senses in which God may be said to “will” something is found in Acts 2:22-23 and 4:27-28. Here we see that in some sense God “willed” the delivering up of his Son while in another sense “did not will” it because it was a sinful thing for his executioners to do. As Piper explains, “Herod's contempt for Jesus (Luke 23:11), Pilate's spineless expediency (Luke 23:24), the Jews' 'Crucify! Crucify him!' (Luke 23:21), and the Gentile soldiers' mockery (Luke 23:36) were also sinful attitudes and deeds. Yet in Acts 4:27-28 Luke expresses his understanding of the sovereignty of God in these acts by recording the prayer of the Jerusalem saints: 'Truly in this city there were gathered together against thy holy servant Jesus, whom thou didst anoint both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel to do whatever thy hand and thy plan (boule) had predestined to take place.' Herod, Pilate, the soldiers, and Jewish crowds lifted their hand to rebel against the Most High only to find that their rebellion was unwitting (sinful) service in the inscrutable designs of God. . . . Therefore we know that it was not the 'will of God' that Judas and Pilate and Herod and the Gentile soldiers and the Jewish crowds disobey the moral law of God by sinning in delivering Jesus up to be crucified. But we also know that it was the will of God that this come to pass. Therefore we know that God in some sense wills what he does not will in another sense” (111-112).
(6) What God has eternally decreed shall occur may be the opposite of what he in Scripture says should or should not occur. It is important to keep in mind that our responsibility is to obey the revealed will of God and not to speculate on what is hidden. Only rarely, as in the case of predictive prophecy, does God reveal to us his decretive will. Examples of God's preceptive or revealed will include Ezek. 18:3; Matt. 6:10; 7:21; Eph. 5:17; and 1 Thess. 4:3. Some would also place in this category 1 Tim. 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9. Examples of God's decretive or hidden will include James 4:15; 1 Cor. 4:19; Matt. 11:25-26.
(7) Another example of this principle is found in Revelation 17:16-17. Clearly, “waging war against the Lamb is sin and sin is contrary to the will of God. Nevertheless the angel says (literally), 'God gave into their [the ten kings] hearts to do his will, and to perform one will, and to give their kingdom to the beast, until the words of God shall be fulfilled' (v. 17). Therefore God willed (in one sense) to influence the hearts of the ten kings so that they would do what is against his will (in another sense)” (Piper, 112).
(8) In Deut. 2:26-27 we read about Moses' request that the Israelites be allowed to pass through the land of Sihon king of Heshbon. It would have been a "good" thing had this king done so. Yet he didn't, because the Lord "hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate" (Deut. 2:30). Thus again we see that in one sense God “willed” that Sihon respond in a manner that was contrary to what God “willed” in another sense (namely, that Israel be blessed and not cursed).
Much the same is found in Joshua 11:19-20 where we are told that the Lord “hardened the hearts” of all those in Canaan to resist Israel so that he, the Lord, might destroy them just as he had said he would.
(9) Other cases are found in Romans 11:7-9, 31-32, and Mark 4:11-12. In the former text we see that “even though it is the command of God that his people see and hear and respond in faith (Isa. 42:18), nevertheless God also has his reasons for sending a spirit of stupor at times so that some will not obey his command” (Piper, 115). Similarly, “the point of Romans 11:31 . . . is that God's hardening of Israel is not an end in itself, but is part of a saving purpose that will embrace all the nations. But in the short run we have to say that he wills a condition (hardness of heart) that he commands people to strive against ('Do not harden your heart' [Heb. 3:8,15; 4:7])” (116). In the text from Mark, “God wills that a condition prevail that he regards as blameworthy. His will is that they turn and be forgiven (Mark 1:15), but he acts in a way to restrict the fulfillment of that will” (115).
In 1 Samuel 2:22-25 we read about the evil of Eli's sons, evil that was clearly against God's "will". God's revealed "will" was that they listen to their father's voice and cease from their sin. Yet we are told that the reason they didn't obey Eli (and God) was because "the Lord desired to put them to death." As Piper notes, “this makes sense only if the Lord had the right and the power to restrain their disobedience – a right and power that he willed not to use. Thus we must say that in one sense God willed that the sons of Eli go on doing what he commanded them not to do; dishonoring their father and committing sexual immorality” (117).
Other examples similar to the one in 1 Samuel 2 are 2 Samuel 17:14; 1 Kings 12:9-15; Judges 14:4; and Deut. 29:2-4. These are all incidents, among many others that could be cited, where God chooses ("wills") for behavior to come about that he commands not ("does not will") to happen.
Still another example is found in Genesis 50:20. There Joseph says to his brothers, “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.” Says Wayne Grudem: “Here God's revealed will to Joseph's brothers was that they should love him and not steal from him or sell him into slavery or make plans to murder him. But God's secret will was that in the disobedience of Joseph's brothers a greater good would be done when Joseph, having been sold into slavery into Egypt, gained authority over the land and was able to save his family” (Systematic Theology, 215).
(10) Arminians have traditionally objected to this distinction between “two wills in God” when it comes to the issue of individual salvation. I am thinking in particular of the statements in 1 Timothy 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9. But Grudem responds by pointing out that
“ultimately Arminians also must say that God wills something more strongly than he wills the salvation of all people, for in fact all are not saved. Arminians claim that the reason why all are not saved is that God wills to preserve the free will of man more than he wills to save everyone. But is this not also making a distinction in two aspects of the will of God? On the one hand God wills that all be saved (1 Tim. 2:5-6; 2 Peter 3:9). But on the other hand he wills to preserve man's absolutely free choice. In fact, he wills the second thing more than the first. But this means that Arminians also must say that 1 Timothy 2:5-6 and 2 Peter 3:9 do not say that God wills the salvation of everyone in an absolute or unqualified way -- they too must say that the verses only refer to one kind or one aspect of God's will” (684).
Both Calvinists and Arminians, therefore, must say that there is something else that God regards as more important than saving everyone: “Reformed theologians say that God deems his own glory more important than saving everyone, and that (according to Rom. 9) God's glory is also furthered by the fact that some are not saved. Arminian theologians also say that something else is more important to God than the salvation of all people, namely, the preservation of man's free will. So in a Reformed system God's highest value is his own glory, and in an Arminian system God's highest value is the free will of man” (Grudem, 684).