The Will Of God, Free Course, Lesson 1
Students From 140 Countries, Accredited, Tuition-Free, Distance Education: Trinity School Of Apologetics & Theology
If God is truly the Sovereign Ruler of the universe, then is it not true that whatever happens is the will of God? A young baby dies of cancer or a young mother or father is seriously injured in an automobile accident and this is said to be God’s will. We pray earnestly for a fellow Christian’s recovery from a serious illness and in closing our prayer we say, “Not our will but Thine be done.” But, recovery does not take place and death occurs. Has God’s will really been done? Invariably, at funerals, if one listens to what is being said to the bereaved, one will be heard saying, “It is God’s will.” Are these things truly God’s will, and if so, in what sense?
The expression Sovereign Ruler is exactly equivalent to Absolute Lord or Sole Ruler. Sovereignty is equal to lordship, lordship is equal to ownership, ownership is equal to control. Consequently, it cannot be denied that if God is Sovereign Ruler then nothing escapes His sovereignty — everything that happens is ultimately the will of God. Repelled by the thought of a loving God being responsible for the death of the innocent and those we love, many have concluded that God is not yet Sovereign Ruler of the universe. Unlike now, one day, they say, God’s will will be done in all things.
Sympathetic as we are to their reasons for coming to this conclusion, we are nevertheless convinced that those who hold this position are terribly wrong. Biblically, the sovereignty of God is not open for debate. If God is not sovereign, He is simply not God. Therefore, when we answer “yes” to the question, “Is it true that whatever happens is the will of God?,” we must make sure that those who hear us understand our answer is not an unqualified “yes.” Failing to do so would be theologically misleading and personally devastating. My “yes” is qualified by the fact that there are at least three different senses in which the “will of God” is used in the Bible. When we understand the different ways in which this term is used, then we can understand how God is not personally and directly responsible for the many things people want to credit or discredit Him with, even though everything that happens ultimately falls within His sovereignty.
God’s Decretive Will
There are things that God decrees to happen. These things He causes to happen by His own omnipotence. These can be described as God’s decretive will. A biblical description of God’s decretive will is found in Psalms 33:11, which says: “The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans of His heart from generation to generation,” and again in Isaiah 14:27, which says: “For the Lord of hosts has planned, and who can frustrate it? And as for His stretched-out hand, who can turn it back?”
It was God’s decretive will that was at work in the redemption of mankind in His Son Jesus (Acts 2:23; 4:28; Colossians 1:4). What God purposes cannot be thwarted. For example, in Romans 8:28-30, God has decreed that He will justify and one day glorify certain foreknown individuals (viz., “whosoever will”) on the basis of a foreordained Christ (Acts 2:23; I Peter 1:19,20) a foreordained gospel plan (I Corinthians 2:7) and a foreordained life (Ephesians 2:10). With this fact firmly established, the apostle Paul joyously affirms, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31). In like manner, the doctrine of the resurrection rests firmly on God’s decretive will. In John 6:40, Jesus said: “And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day.” Again, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”
God’s Preceptive Will
But there is a second way in which the “will of God” is used in the Bible. This has to do not with what God purposed to do Himself but with what He desires for man to do. This can be described as God’s preceptive will and is primarily concerned with man’s obedience to His word or precepts. The writer of Hebrews speaks of the “will of God” in this sense when he writes: “For you have need of endurance, so that after you have done the will of God, you may receive the promise” (Hebrews 10:36). In was in this sense that the Lord used the expression in Matthew 7:21: “Not every who says to Me, Lord, Lord, shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.” When Jesus said “the will of My Father,” he was speaking of God’s precepts, statutes, or commandments. Consequently, it is in connection with God’s preceptive will — not His decretive will — that man is commanded to “work out [his] own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12).
Furthermore, it is in connection with God’s preceptive will that we understand that the Lord is “longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (II Peter 3:9). Actually, God’s desire (will) for the salvation of all men is reflected many places in His word (cf. I Timothy 2:4; Luke 7:30; Matthew 23:37), but such must be kept distinct from God’s decretive will. A failure to make such a distinction will cause one to land squarely within the Calvinist camp.
God’s Permissive Will
There is a third sense in which the “will of God” is used in the Scriptures. It can be described as God’s permissive will. Perhaps it is with God’s permissive will that men have the most trouble. In this category are to be found all those things which God neither purposes nor desires, but which he allows man in his freedom to bring about. There is a sense in which this third category is related to the second, God’s preceptive will. With a strict use of the word “permissive,” it can be seen that man’s response to God’s desire or preceptive will is not decreed or purposed by Him and is, therefore, permitted. In other words, God does not make someone obey His laws; in the strictest sense, He permits one to do so.
But that which makes this third category different from the second is not the presence of God’s permission, but the absence of a stated desire on God’s part that these events or circumstances should happen. In this category are events God neither purposed nor desired, but, nevertheless, permits, including some things that are clearly contrary to His stated desire (will), such as man’s sins. Therefore, when, in Jeremiah 19:5, God said: “They have also built the high places of Baal, to burn their sons with fire for burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or speak, nor did it come into my mind,” He made it plain that it was not His will they were doing, decreed or preceptive. In other words, it was not the mind (will) of God that they should do such a thing. Nevertheless, the Lord permitted His people to exercise their free wills and do those things clearly contrary to His counsel (will). Things such as this are within the “will of God” only in the sense that He permits them t
o happen (cf. Acts 17:24-30; 14:16; Romans 1:18-32).
God’s permissive will allows both bad and good things to occur. It is used by Paul in this latter sense in I Corinthians 16:7, when he writes: “For I do not wish to see you now on the way; but I hope to stay a while with you, if the Lord permits.” Again, he uses it this way when, in Acts 18:21, he writes: “I must by all means keep this coming feast in Jerusalem; but I will return again to you, God willing.” The writer of Hebrews put it this way: “And this we will do if God permits” (Hebrews 6:3).
Sometimes, of course, the Lord does not will (permit) something to happen that His creatures desire to happen. As Sovereign, He has the perfect right to do so. For example, in Acts 16:7, Luke writes: “After they had come to Mysia they tried to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit did not permit them.” And in James 4:13-15, the height of man’s prideful arrogance is manifested by one who does not take into consideration that his desires might be superseded by the Sovereign Ruler of the universe.
Control Not Causation
Some (Calvinists, for instance) have thought that the key to sovereignty is causation. This is wrong! The key to sovereignty is ultimate control. Through His absolute foreknowledge of every plan of man’s heart, and through His absolute ability (omnipotence) to either permit or prevent any particular plan man may have, God maintains complete control (sovereignty) over His creation. The power to prevent means that God ultimately has the final word in everything that happens. To deny this is to deny the sovereignty of God!
It is true, then, that whatever happens is God’s will. Everything that happens falls within the sovereign will of God in one sense or another. But, it is absolutely crucial to understand that there are three different senses in which this may be true: 1) Sometimes a thing occurs because God decides it will happen, and then He makes it happen. This we have called God’s decretive will and it seems to be limited mostly to His working out the “scheme of redemption.” 2) Sometimes a thing occurs because God desires it and man decides of his own free will to do what God desires. This we have identified as God’s preceptive will and has to do with God’s commandments or precepts. 3) Sometimes a thing occurs because of the agency of an individual or group of individuals and God permits it to happen.
We have called this God’s permissive will. Included in this category are sinful or careless acts like murder or the death of one caused by the actions of a drunken driver. Even tragedies that occur through the natural processes would fit in this category. All three of these categories can be classified as “God’s will,” but only the first category is God’s will in any causative sense. And even though God is Sovereign Ruler of the universe, categories two and three remind us that we must allow Sovereign Ruler to respect the integrity of the freedom He has granted to His creation. We must learn to trust His wisdom in knowing what good can be drawn from the tragic episodes He permits to take place in category three.
Finally, the Christian has the assurance of God’s special providence which compelled the apostle Paul to say: “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). And again, in Romans 8:31, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”