Last week we were thinking about God’s power and how God is omnipotent or all-powerful so that nothing is too hard for him. However, I also made the point that his power is not a brute force which is uncontrollable, but it’s guided by his nature, which includes his wisdom and holiness and justice and goodness and truth. And so, his power is wise and holy and just and good and true. And his power is also guided by his will; and his will for his people is good and includes our salvation and our glorification in his presence. And so, we needn’t be afraid of God’s great power, because he uses his great power for our good.
That was last week. Today I thought we’d continue to think about God’s will, which we believe is the ultimate cause of all things. Everything derives from God’s will, because by his will he has determined all things. He has decided what should exist and what those things will be like and what will happen to those things. And he has decided who should exist and what they will be like and what will happen to them. It is all determined by God’s will. And since God is all-powerful, then he has the ability to execute his will perfectly so that his plans are never frustrated; and everything happens just as he planned it. And since God is infinitely, eternally and unchangeably wise and powerful and holy and just and good and true, then we know that his will is wise and powerful and holy and just and good and true. Our plans are often unwise. We often want things which are unjust and not right. We often want things which are not good, but evil. In the book of Genesis, Joseph’s brothers intended to harm him. Their will for him was wicked. However, God’s plan for Joseph was good, because God’s will is always in keeping with all of his other attributes.
The Scriptures make it abundantly clear that everything derives from God’s will. Psalm 135:6 says:
Whatever the LORD pleases, he does,
in heaven and on earth,
in the seas and all deeps.
‘Whatever he pleases’ is a way of referring to his will. He decides to do what pleases him in heaven and on earth.
According to Proverbs 16:33, ‘The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD.’ So, he determines the outcome of seemingly random events.
Proverbs 21 says:
The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD;
he turns it wherever he will.
In other words, the Lord’s will determines what kings and presidents and prime ministers and governments will do.
In Jeremiah 18:6 the Lord said to Israel:
Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.
Just as the potter decides to do what he wants with a pot, so the Lord decides to do what he wants with his people.
Nebuchadnezzar, in Daniel 4:35, declared about the Lord:
all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing,
and he does according to his will among the host of heaven
and among the inhabitants of the earth;
and none can stay his hand
or say to him, ‘What have you done?’
He does according to his will in heaven and on earth.
The Lord Jesus said in Matthew 18:29:
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.
Whether a sparrow lives or dies is determined by God’s will. And so, he determines the smallest details of life.
When the Lord Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane for God’s will to be done, he made clear that his own suffering on the cross was God’s will.
In Acts 18, Paul told the believers in Ephesus that he would return to them ‘if God wills’.
In Romans 9, Paul is writing about our salvation which depends not on us, but on God’s decision. Therefore Paul wrote:
For [God] says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.
At the end of his letter to the Romans, he asked the believers to pray for him so that he could come to them ‘by God’s will’.
Paul, in Ephesians 1:11, says God ‘works all things according to the counsel of his will’. Not some things, but all things happen according to his will.
In Philippians 2:13, Paul says:
it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
That is, our sanctification is due to God. James 1:18 says:
Of [God’s] own will he brought us forth [that is, in the new birth]….
He decides who will be born again of his Spirit.
And in James 4, we’re told not to boast about tomorrow, because we don’t know what will happen tomorrow. Instead of boasting, we should acknowledge that our life is determined by God’s will. According to 1 Peter 3:17, the suffering of believers is according to God’s will.
And Revelation 4:11 says:
Worthy are you, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honour and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they existed and were created.
So God created all things by, or according to, his will.
This is only a sample of what we find in the Scriptures, but this sample is enough to make clear to us that the consistent testimony of the Bible is that everything derives from God’s will and all things depend solely on God’s will for their being. He determines what will exist and what it will be like and what will happen to it. And so, when we ask ourselves why something happened in the world, or why something happened to us, the ultimate answer is that it happened because it was God’s will.
Necessary and Free Will
When discussing God’s will, the theologians like to make a number of distinctions. There’s no need to mention all of them today, but I’ll mention two. And, of course, there are really no distinctions in God’s will, because God’s will, like God himself, is not divided. However, these distinctions help us to think about God’s will.
The first distinction I’ll mention is between God’s necessary will and God’s free will. God’s necessary will is perhaps hard to grasp, but it refers to God’s will in relation to himself. He eternally wills himself and his holy nature and he wills himself as Three Persons in one. Now, the idea that anyone can will himself or herself strikes us as odd. But think of it this way. You and I do not will ourselves, because what we are is determined by God. We derive our being from him and from his will for us. But we cannot say that God derived his being from someone else, because that someone else would then be greater than God. God would owe his existence to that other being who wanted him to exist. And we can’t say that about the Lord. And so, we say that God eternally willed himself; and he is what he wills himself to be. And since it could not be otherwise, then we say this is God’s necessary will.
So, that’s his necessary will. His free will is in relation to his creation, because he’s free to do what he wants with us. He’s under no constraint. He’s not compelled in any way. He can do with us whatever he wants and whatever pleases him. Job in Job 9 says:
Who will say to him, ‘What are you doing?’
No one has the right to question what God has done, because he’s free to do whatever pleases him. However, though he is free to do whatever pleases him, his will for us is not arbitrary, because he will never do anything contrary to his nature.
Decretive and Preceptive Will
The second distinction to mention is between God’s decretive will and his preceptive will. While not quite the same, this is similar to the distinction between God’s secret will and his revealed will.
There are things which God has decreed. For instance, he decreed that the world would exist and that there would be light and darkness and the sky above and the earth below and dry land and sea and vegetation and birds and fish and animals and people. He decreed all of these things and it all happened according to his decree. The history of the world has also been decreed by God so that everything happens according to his plan. And his plan for the world included humanity’s fall into the state of sin and misery and it also included the sending of his Son to deliver us from our sin and misery. This was all decreed by God. He has decreed all things. And because he is all-powerful, everything happens according to his decree. Since we don’t know what God has decreed until he reveals it, or until it happens, then we say it is secret. He knows what he has decreed, but we don’t.
Then there’s his preceptive will which refers to the precepts or the commandments which he has revealed to us and which are summarised in the Ten Commandments. When we say that it is God’s will for us to have no other gods before him and to honour our parents and not to murder, then we’re referring to God’s preceptive will. This is how he wants us to live our lives.
This distinction is seen in James 4, where James tells not to boast about tomorrow, because we don’t know what will happen tomorrow. Until it happens, none of us knows what will happen tomorrow. However, God knows, because he has planned it. And so, James tells us we should say:
If it’s the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.
And notice we’re to say, ‘If it’s the Lord’s will….’ We don’t know what his will is. Until it happens, it’s a secret. But then James goes on to say:
Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.
So, there are some things we don’t know, such as what will happen tomorrow. But there are other things we do know. We know what good things the Lord wants us to do. That is, we know his precepts and his commands. We know it’s his will for us to love him and we know it’s his will for us to love our neighbour. That’s what he wants us to do.
There’s God’s decretive or secret will, which refers to all that he has decreed will happen. And there’s God’s preceptive or revealed will, which refers to the commands he has given us to keep. God’s decretive will always happens, because no one is able to thwart God’s plan. However, every day sinners disobey God’s preceptive will.
It might seem from this that not everything happens according to God’s will, because every day we disobey his will. We may not have the right to disobey God’s will, but it seems that we have the power to disobey his will. So, does this mean that, despite what the Bible says, not everything happens according to God’s will? Does this mean we’re able to frustrate God’s plans by our disobedience? Is his plan frustrated by our sinfulness?
Not at all, because he includes our disobedience in what he has decreed. Without being the author of sin, and without approving of our sin in any way, he includes our sin in what he has decreed. It’s still sin and we’re still blameworthy for it. However, God not only permits it, but he wills it. And this is because he uses our sin to fulfil his own good and perfect will. We see this again in the book of Genesis and in the story of Joseph and how God used the sin of Joseph’s brothers in order to ensure that Joseph was in the right place at the right time to save the people from famine. And since it was God’s will for his Son to suffer and die on the cross for sinners, then it was also God’s will for the Jews to demand his crucifixion and for Pilate to order it.
Herman Bavinck uses the illustration of a father who forbids his child from using a sharp knife, because the child will only misuse it and cause harm to himself and others. However, the father is able to use the same knife for a good purpose. Likewise, God our Father forbids us from committing sin, but he himself is able to use sin for his own good purposes. And ultimately, of course, he willed Adam’s sin in the beginning and all of our subsequent sins in order to display the glory of his wisdom and power and holiness and justice and goodness and truth by sending his only begotten Son into the world to deliver us from our sin and misery and to bring us into his presence.
And that brings me to the final thing to say. What is the end of God’s will? What’s he aiming at? What does his will desire? We might be tempted to say that the end of God’s will is our glorification in God’s presence, because Christ died to bring us to God. But that’s not the ultimate end of God’s will. The ultimate end of God’s will and the thing he desires most of all is his own glory. Everything God wills and decrees and determines and decides is for his glory. Do you remember how the passage from Ephesians ends?
And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession — to the praise of his glory.