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10 Things You should Know about God’s Will(s)

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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. Continue reading . . . 

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).

8 Comments

You make a good point, Cleve, God is "pleased to ordain / allow that which does not please Him (such is our dilemma with Words); but the question that Westminster Calvinists will struggle to answer is: If it is the chief end of man to glorify God and *enjoy* Him forever then how can that be reconciled with His alleged decree to ordain that the reprobate be born with no actual hope in Christ. I would agree that those in Hell will glorify God but I doubt anyone will be enjoying Him there. Did God fail in His chief end for man?

Martin, to be precise, the statement wasn't that God is pleased by his own displeasure (which would be nonsensical and incomprehensible), but that God is often pleased to ordain his own displeasure (which is quite sensible and comprehensible). Numerous examples from everyday life could be cited. Runners willingly put themselves through intensely unpleasant and painful training in order to someday win a prize. A parent labors and sacrifices for their children in countless ways -- sleepless nights, financial pressures, diligent discipline and training -- in order to enjoy the fruit of all of that hard work and sacrifice at some point down the road. Students choose to study hard and go to class and do homework rather than watch TV in order to have greater pleasure in the end. It is not hard for me to conceive then that God might also willingly choose (ordain) to endure considerable displeasure now in order to have magnified pleasure in the end. In fact, that idea is echoed in many biblical passages, not the least of which is Hebrews 12:2 ("For the joy set before him he endured the cross").

Mr. Paul,

It seems to me that you have misunderstood what Calvinism teaches. You appear to assume that Calvinism is simply the opposite of Arminianism, i.e., Arminians say that it is all free will and Calvinists say that it is all predestination. But this misrepresents Calvinism. Calvinism affirms the same mystery that you affirm, i.e., that it is both. It was when I saw that Arminianism and Calvinism weren't simply opposites, but that Arminianism affirmed only one half of the mystery while Calvinism affirmed both halves that I was persuaded that Calvinism was the one that was saying what the Bible was saying.

I have not read the whole article yet... just glanced through this because my sister asked me to. I have been thinking on these issues for a long time now.... It seems rather strange that 'Calvinists' and 'Armenians' should even 'debate' the question of God's Sovereignty and Man's responsibility. Both are true and we cannot and should not 'pit' the one against the other. It is only when we all fail to hold to both these truths - as both truths are taught in Scripture - that we tend to lean either towards 'Calvinism' or the 'Armenian' position.

The fact of the matter is, God will ultimately allow or even 'send' people to the lake of fire, not because He 'hates' them; actually, He is only being very gracious in sending them there!!! Did I just say 'gracious' - yes, even actually very loving that He does so. For you see, if you take an unregenerate person and put in heaven, the first thing and the only thing that person would really want is to get out of heaven. Not even the 'rich' man in Luke 16 (while in hell) wish to be taken out of it and get to heaven. He of course does wish for a bit of relief, however, it is interesting to notice that he did not ask to be taken away from that place. No. No unregenerate person would want to be in the presence of God. Indeed, God would be far more intolerable to all such unregenerate persons that hell and later, the Lake of Fire.

In short, all I saying, is that the scriptures are clear that God is not 'wishing' people to go to hell. Our Lord Jesus Christ plainly stated that hell was created for the Devil and his angles. However, since unregenerate persons cannot and will not want to be in heaven with the Lord, there is only one other place that is fit for them. I'm certain, no one in hell or later in the lake of fire will ever say that the Lord was unjust in keeping them there! No. they will all readily and willingly confess Christ as Lord and that He is worthy of worship and that He is and was right in sending them there.

To return to the other issues - God does all that He does ever and always in keeping with His Glory, Love, Purity, Holiness, etc. No one of His Divine attributes are set aside or even 'overshadowed'. All of God's mind is in accord with His being and His being is in accord with His mind. How then can there ever be such a thing as God wanting to hold on to His Glory above His Will or above His Love or above His Grace.

Finally, to quote C H Spurgeon... he said that God's Sovereignty and man's responsibility are like parallel lines - they meet only in infinity. And whereas this is true and provable mathematically, it is far more true that God will explain it all. In the words of William Cooper, "God is His Own Interpreter, And He will make it plain". Amen.

Let us accept the whole council of God and take the words of our God for just what they are and stop trying to reconcile them this side of eternity. This is not for us to do. The secret things belong to the Lord our God, and all that He has revealed is for us and for our children.

All who argue against Calvinists tend to be labelled as Armenians. Strangely, all who argue against Armenians get labelled as Calvinists. But how true this is. For both, Calvinists and Armenians have strayed away to either extremes and therefore to argue against the one seems like we are on the other side. But naturally!! However, it is possible to be a Bible believer without getting muddled up with either extremes. And may the Lord grant us all grace so to be.

Agree with you there Bill.
In fact, I stumbled earlier in the article over the statement the God is pleased by His own displeasure. I find it fascinating that someone can say that in sincerity with no more explanation that was given.
But I'm an Arminian, so I would have much to disagree with here.
And Grudem's characterization of Arminianism is deeply flawed. :)

Thanks Sam, always enjoy your articles. But I can't let that last line go unchallenged.

One does not need to capitulate to the Calvinistic teaching of irresistible salvation and irresistible damnation in order to agree that God's glory should be valued above man's free will.
Indeed, God will receive more honor and glory by giving the keys to man than He would if He always took the wheel Himself.

Man has been given a freedom of will because this is how God's glory can be most manifested and honored.

I have yet to see an Arminian / non-calvinist teacher claim that man's will should be valued above God's glory. Can you site one?

To your main point, I think Joseph's interpretation of Pharaoh's dreams is helpful. The dream (cows and corn) was repeated because the thing was "established." Thus, some things are irresistibly fixed by God but some are not. Wise is the man / theological system that can rightly distinguish between the two!

@Bill Bradley: What other things trump his 'desire for glory'?

God can use someone's sin for his own glory, but he doesn't force anyone to sin. And his "desire for glory" doesn't trump everything else he desires. This is one of the problems, I believe, with Reformed Theology.

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