The subject of God’s will is one that has been prominent in Evangelical churches for centuries. Everyone wants to know what God’s will is, but if you are going to ask what the Bible has to say about this subject, you first have to determine which way you are asking this question. You see, the Bible use the concept of “will of God” or “God’s will” in several different ways. Nearly all Bible scholars agree on this, and unless these distinctions are understood, there will be confusion as to the proper application of biblical teaching on this topic. So we need to spend some time working through these differences.
Sometimes the Bible refers to what we might call “the sovereign will of God.” With this usage it is in reference to something that will, in fact, come to pass – and there is nothing at all we can do to prevent it from taking place. Various Bible scholars refer to this aspect of God’s will in different ways. It is sometimes called “the decretive will of God.” Others refer to it as “the immutable will of God.” It is spoken of as “the hidden (or secretive) will of God” because we can’t know it until it takes place. It can be called the comprehensive will of God or God’s will of purpose, but whatever we call it, this aspect of God’s will is something that remains completely in God’s sovereign domain. It is something that absolutely will happen – and there is nothing in this universe that can prevent it from occurring.
An example of this usage is found in Isaiah 46:9-11, “Remember the former things long past, for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things which have not been done, saying, 'My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure'; calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of My purpose from a far country. Truly I have spoken; truly I will bring it to pass. I have planned it, surely I will do it.”
This statement is comprehensive, including even the smallest of details. It is something that is certain to take place. No one or nor thing can stop it. Here the will of God is called “all My good pleasure” because it refers to something God has chosen to do. And there are many other examples like this found in Scripture (such as Is. 14:24, Ps. 115:3, Dan. 4:34-35, Eph. 1:11, and Prov. 16:9, among others).
Proverbs 19:21 says, “Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but the counsel of the LORD, it will stand.” You can plan all you want, but if your plan is not in accordance with the sovereign will of God, it will not come to pass. Your plan will get over-ridden by His providence. Job confessed, in Job 42:2, “I know that Thou canst do all things, and that no purpose of Thine can be thwarted.”
Some call this the “permissive will of God” because it describes what God allows to take place. When something happens, you can know three things for certain about it: 1.) God already knew it was going to happen. God is omniscient. He sees the end from the beginning. He already knows in advance what is going to happen. He is never caught off guard. So when something happens, we can know (first of all) that God already knew about it. 2.) God could have prevented it from happening. Since He is omnipotent, He has the power to prevent anything He chooses from taking place. So when something happens, we can know that He has allowed it to occur. 3.) It is part of God’s sovereign will for it to happen.
Although God has revealed a portion of His sovereign will to us in Scripture (in the form of biblical prophecy), most of the sovereign will of God cannot be known in advance. We can only know God’s sovereign will after it has taken place. We can look and see what God has done, but we cannot know ahead of time what He intends to do. And this, of course, is problematic for some people because everyone wants to know the sovereign will of God in advance. This is why so many turn to some form of mystical revelation and seek some new word from God. However, if you believe in a closed canon of Scripture, and that God is no longer giving new revelation today, then you are left with trusting God for the future and leaving His sovereign will to His providence.
So there is the sovereign will of God referred to in Scripture, but there is also another usage. There are also many references to what we might call the “moral will of God.” This also goes by many different terms, such as “the perceptive will of God,” “the directive will of God,” or “the commanding will of God.” Some talk about the revealed will of God in contrast to His secret will. A key verse here is Deut. 29:29, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law.” Some call it the “general will of God” and 100% of it is revealed to us in Scripture.
In contrast to God’s sovereign will, His moral will is not something that will surely happen. It may happen or it may not happen because we have to decide if we are going to obey or disobey it. The moral will of God consists of all the commands given in Scripture that reveals to us how God desires for us to live. This is, at least in part, what Jesus was referring to in Matthew 6:10 when He taught us to pray, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” In essence, what He was praying is that God’s moral will be done in this world.
This is the will of God that is expressed in Psalm 40:8, which says, “I delight to do Your will, O my God; Your Law is within my heart.” The Old Testament law was essentially an expression of the moral will of God. In the New Testament the moral will of God is what Paul is referring to in Ephesians 5:15-17, “Therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men, but as wise, making the most of your time, because the days are evil. So then do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” It is also what Paul is talking about in Colossians 1:9-10, “For this reason also, since the day we heard of it, we have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God …” This aspect of God’s will is known from the study of Scripture and God’s intention in regard to it is obedience.
So a first step in distinguishing God’s will is to determine which aspect of God’s will we are talking about. We must be able to separate the sovereign will of God from His moral will. When we do that, we will know if it has to do with that which we are to heed or that which we are simply to trust.
(For more on this topic, see Free to Be Wise, chapter 3)
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