A Theology of the Will of God
The will of God connects His omnipotence to the created world in His providence.
When I was younger I was dead confused about the Will of God. It was a mystery, something you found mystically in your prayer closet or in some mysterious encounter with a stranger where everything just sort of falls into place in a momentary flash of clarity. I didn’t really believe the sovereignty of God (that He could work through logic and reason and emotions and influences), so I limited Him to just those sorts of supernatural revelations. After all, the only way He could communicate with me was to give me some sort of unexplainable sign right?
H. A. Ironside tells a story about this confusion that hits the nail on the head:
The story is told of a young curate in the Church of England who was greatly helped in his understanding of the Scriptures by frequent conversations with an uneducated cobbler, who was, nevertheless, well acquainted with the Word of God. On one occasion when a friend of his, a young theologian, was visiting him, he mentioned this remarkable knowledge of the Bible which the cobbler possessed. The young theologue, in a spirit of pride, expressed a desire to meet him, saying he felt sure he could ask some questions which he would be quite unable to answer. Upon being introduced to the man in his little shop, the question was put, “Can you tell me what Urim and the Thummin were?”
The cobbler replied, “I don’t know exactly; I understand that the words apply to something that was on the breastplate of the high priest. I know the words mean “Lights and Perfection,” and that through the Urim and Thummin the high priest was able to discern the mind of the Lord. But I find that I can get the mind of the Lord by just changing two letters. I take this blessed Book, and by “usin’ and thummin,” I get the mind of the Lord that way.”
What is the Will of God?
Divide the phrase into two parts: “will” and “of God.” Since we are talking theologically, we’ll look at the Greek. “Will” is translated mainly from θέλημα (thelema) which has two main senses, an objective and a subjective. Meaning, we can talk about will as the thing you wish would happen and your actual wish itself. So you can have a written will (referring to the document which records your desires far after you and your inner desires cease to exist as such) and a free will (referring to the ability you have as a free agent to make autonomous decisions, to possess certain desires). The former is very external and objective while the latter is more internal and psychological. Systematic Theologian John Frame says the former is the one we talk about when we say the “will of God.”
Similarly, though Scripture often refers to God’s will (much more often than to God’s mind), it does not typically speak of the will as some metaphysical or psychological entity in God that enables him to make decisions and exercise power. Rather, God’s will is the decisions themselves. The decision-maker, as we would expect from the doctrine of simplicity, is not some part of God, or some faculty within God; it is God himself, the person. God is the One who acts; his will is what he decides.
“God’s will is anything he wants to happen.”
Will of Decree and Will of Precept
Within the “Will of God,” theologians make distinctions which help us think. There are no such distinctions in the person of God, but these act as crutches to aid us to take one small step at a time.
Some see the will of God as being synonymous with the law, but it is not. There’s more to it. The law, and the word of God, is what we have revealed, but that’s just a part (e.g., Deut 29:29). Though there are many facets to his will, there are two main ones: the will of decree and will of precept.
In the older theology of the Reformed Church, there are several different subdivisions, and they are all in Latin (of course). There are several, but these first two form the backbone.
- Voluntas beneplaciti: the “will of desire” (or, voluntas decreti: the “will of decree”; or, voluntas occulta: the “secret will”) is the core quote/unquote Will of God. It is that which pleases Him. And ultimately, because He only does what pleases Him, it’s the one that absolutely must and will happen.
- Voluntas signi: the “signifying will” (or, voluntas revelata: the “revealed will”; or, voluntas praecepti: the “will of precept”) is a subset of His will which reveals to us His will of desire. It signifies to us His pleasure (His beneplaciti). We find this aspect of His will solely in His word.
So the will of desire (1) is what God wishes to do in us, and His will of precept (2) is what He wishes to be done by us. Example: God willed in precept (2) that Abraham should take Isaac up on the mountain, but He willed in decree (1) that a ram be there instead. Strictly speaking there is only one will of God—the beneplaciti, number (1)—the other is just the communication of it. Another example:
The invitation to the wedding proposed in the parable (Mt. 22:1–14) teaches that the king wills (i.e., commands and desires) the invited to come and that this is their duty; but not that the king intends or has decreed that they should really come. Otherwise he would have given them the ability to come and would have turned their hearts.
Further Divisions of the Will of God
In the Reformed tradition, God’s will has been further divided into four tensions. These come in pairs because they express a tension to God’s will which exists in some sort of divine “balance.”
Group 1: Choice
- Voluntas absoluta: the “absolute will” expresses God’s omnipotence and thus perfect freedom to do whatever He wants.
- Voluntas conditionalis: the “conditional will” refers to the limitation God puts on the absoluteness of His will to make rational, logical choices, not merely arbitrary ones. For example, God chooses to constrain His unbounded freedom when He acts in Love. There are things He “can’t” do when He chooses to act in Love. Conditionalis merely expresses the limits he puts on his absolute will as it is “conditioned by [His] dealings with creation.”
Group 2: Causation
How does God’s will interact with and unfold in the time-space continuum?
- Voluntas antecedens: the “antecedent will” expresses the timing of His will, being “antecedent,” or before, any other created thing.
- Voluntas consequens: the “will of consequent” refers to the product of God’s will which he determined in eternity past, but also determines as it unfolds.
Group 3: Theodicy
If God’s will must account for all creation, what about evil, Satan, and hell?
- Voluntas efficiens: the “efficient will” refers to those aspects of His will who receive His full affirmation. Efficiens also means to create, cause, or produce. So this is the product of His creation which obeys Him perfectly and gets his affirmation.
- Voluntas permittens: the “permitted will” refers to the part of creation which doesn’t get His affirmation. He still has willed its existence, but He isn’t pleased with it. He permits it to exist because it serves His purposes (e.g., Satan).
Group 4: Efficacy
This pairing seems to try to explain away why bad things happen by giving God a way out: that His will is sometimes “ineffective.” But that’s blasphemous.
- Voluntas efficax: the “effective will” refers to the efficacy of His will. This is the truth about God’s will.
- Voluntas inefficax: the “ineffective will” refers to the parts of God’s will which don’t happen for one reason or another. This is regarded as heretical.
The Bible is riddled with examples, but let me just give you a few, some of which are exposition of His will, others are examples of it in practice.
Biblical Exposition of God’s Will
- Is 46:9–11
- Eph 1:9–11
- Rom 12:2
- John 1:13
- John 7:17
- John 9:31
- Acts 22:14
- 1 Thess 4:3
- 1 Thess 5:18
- Heb 10:36
- 1 Pet 2:15, 3:17, 4:2, 19
- 1 John 2:17
- Rev 4:11
Biblical Examples of God’s Will
- Ps 2:7–8
- Acts 2:23
- Acts 4:27–28
- Matt 21:31
- Mark 3:35
- Rom 1:10
- Heb 10:7
We are to live the Will of God (1 Pet 4:2) and His will is our purity (1 Thess 4:3). His will is also associated with “the Way” (Acts 16:17; 2 Pet 2:2).
Paul often begins his letters with “by the will of God” (e.g., 1 Cor 1:1; 2 Cor 1:1; Eph 1:1; Col 1:1; 2 Tim 1:1)
We are supposed to pray for His will to be done: “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Matt 6:10
God’s Will and Man’s Responsibility
Most people think that they have to wait on God’s will before they act; they wait for a sign to show them what He wants of them. But, compatibilism (which I will write more on later) says that God actually works in and through our own free wills so that when we are keeping his revealed will (obeying His word), what we want to do is what He wants us to do. More on that in another post, but to round out this theology of the will of God in practical application, take this example from the Bible: God wants us to make good decisions (Josh 24:15) but He doesn’t leave us alone to make them all by ourselves (Gen 50:19–20). God works in and through the natural processes of our own internal reasoning to bring about His greater plan (Gen 45:8).
- John MacArthur, Found: God’s Will.
- John M. Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief.
- Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine.
- Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics.
- John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion.
John M. Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief. Kindle Edition, loc 9714. ↩
John M. Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief. Kindle Edition, loc 9718. ↩
The things revealed to us in His word are, classically stated, “precept, prohibition, permission, counsel, and the fulfillment of predictions.” (POLANUS, II, 19) ↩
Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, cited in God Desires Compliance to his Will and Commands as Standard Reformed Doctrine. ↩