The Will Of God
by Allan Turner
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 to 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?”
Does God Have An Individual Will For Each Person’s Life?
Those who ask this question assume an individual, specific will for every person. They assume that God has an ideal, detailed blueprint already drawn up for each person’s life. They assume that for any decision we face there is a specific choice (in the most restrictive sense) that God wants us to make. This applies to the school we should attend, the occupation we should choose, and the specific individual God wants us to marry. In his book, Knowing God’s Will—And Doing It!, J. Grant Howard, Jr. expressed it this way: “Scripture teaches us that God has a predetermined plan for every life. It is that which will happen. It is inevitable, unconditional, immutable, irresistible, comprehensive, and purposeful. It is also, for the most part, unpredictable. It includes everything—even sin and suffering. It involves everything—even human responsibility and human decisions.” A good summary of this view is given by Garry Friesen in his book Decision Making & the Will of God: “God’s individual will is that ideal, detailed life-plan which God has uniquely designed for each believer. This life-plan encompasses every decision we make and is the basis of God’s daily guidance. This guidance is given through the indwelling Holy Spirit who progressively reveals God’s life-plan to the heart of the individual believer....”
Although this view is very popular, we are convinced that the idea of an individual, specific will of God for every detail of a person’s life is not taught in God’s Word. The Calvinists and other determinists argue that the Bible is filled with examples of individuals for whom God had a specific plan, such as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, John the Baptist, Paul, et al. But each of these examples was highly unusual and was related to God’s working out of His plan of salvation for fallen mankind, that is, the Scheme of Redemption. Furthermore, the specific plan that God had for each of these individuals was revealed to them by special revelation and, therefore, cannot be seen as normative for ordinary believers.
Those who affirm God’s individual will for each person usually cite passages like Psalms 32:8; Proverbs 3:5,6; Isaiah 30:20,21; Colossians 1:9 and 4:12; Romans 12:1,2; Ephesians 2:10 and 5:15-17. But when these passages are considered in their context, a much stronger case can be made for these passages in terms of God’s preceptive or moral will (which we have already discussed at some length) and not His decretive will.
Being Led By The Spirit
But someone will say, “How about being ‘led by the Spirit?’” In Romans 8:14, the Scriptures say, “For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God,” and in Galatians 5:18, it says, “But if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under law.” The Calvinist thinks the Holy Spirit influences him through some mysterious inward guidance. The Bible does not teach such a doctrine—these two passages included—and we are firmly convinced that when one begins to listen to some inner voice, he is headed for trouble. In fact, Romans 8:26,27 doesn’t say anything about the Holy Spirit speaking to us. What it says is: “...the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. Now He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God.” Being led by the Spirit of God has to do with one’s obedience to God’s Word (i.e., God’s preceptive or moral will), which is the “sword of the Spirit” (Ephesians 6:17). Being led by the Spirit in a direct way, like was promised to the apostles (John 16:12-14), was never intended to be understood as being avail able to all Christians. In other words, direct guidance by God’s Holy Spirit was promised specifically to the Lord’s apostles, not Christians in general, and was for the specific purpose of revealing the Bible, not for inner guidance for all Christians (cf. Ephesians 3:3-5).
We find it ironic that those who are waiting to know God’s will for themselves through some inner guidance or miracle apart from the Word are the very ones who miss God’s will for their lives by not obeying His preceptive or moral will. I have personally taught the gospel to those caught up in this deceptive doctrine and have had them tell me that if God wanted them to be baptized for the remission of sins, He would have told them directly through a direct operation of the Holy Spirit. As they erroneously wait for a direct revelation of God’s decretive will, they fail to obey His preceptive will. Therefore, as one can see, this is a most damnable doctrine!
But, in rejecting such a doctrine, one must not jump to another equally extreme position which says that knowing the will of God is irrelevant to daily decision making. The will of God (particularly His preceptive will as revealed in the Scriptures) is always applicable to our daily lives. God’s Word is to be the reference point for our decision making. This means that the most sophisticated technique for knowing the will of God in our lives is found in II Timothy 3:16, which says, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God might be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” In other words, whatever God instructs us to do in His Word, either through commands or general principles, is His will for our lives. this means that if God wants us to do it, then it is in the book! Thus, when the question is asked, “How can I know God’s will for my life?,” we can answer, “Look in the Bible.”
Not As Many “Thou Shalts” And “Thou Shalt Nots” As You Might Think
Additionally, and contrary to what a lot of people think, God’s preceptive will for man has very few “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots.” Most of what God would have us do is learned from principles taught in His Word. This is why Bible study is so important. If we are not thoroughly familiar with God’s Word, then we will not know the principles that allow us to make the right decisions in our lives. For instance: When we are familiar with the sanctity of life ethic taught throughout the Bible, we are able to make the right decisions concerning the many pressing issues of our day, namely, abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, etc. In times past, God’s people perished because they were ignorant of His Word (cf. Hosea 4:1), and the same thing can happen to us today.
Neither Required Nor Forbidden
But, and this is very important, many of the decisions we face every day are neither required nor forbidden by God’s preceptive will. The key to understanding this point is to be found in the idea that it is not our task to know if a particular decision is God’s will, but rather if it is within God’s will. For example: In I Timothy 5:8, the inspired apostle wrote, “But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” This is God’s preceptive will and it requires, among other things, that a parent provide nourishing food for his/her children, and as long as this general principle is met, the specific decision of whether to have liver and onions or steak and green beans for dinner does not really matter to God. Whether one eats in the kitchen or the dining room, or whether the beans are fresh or frozen, or whether one has a hamburger for breakfast, lunch or dinner, does not matter to God. Once again, as long as the general requirements of this passage are being met, God is not really concerned about the specific choices that are made. Understanding this point can be liberating for those who have thought God wanted them to make a specific choice in every circumstance.
To be pleasing to God, everything we do must fall within His preceptive will (cf. Colossians 3:17), even those things that are not specifically required by it, such as matters of opinion and indifference. For instance, we have the right (i.e., it falls within God’s will) to eat or not eat meat; but, and this is terribly important, we have no right to bind either of these on anyone else (Romans 14:1-13). Likewise, we have the right (i.e., it falls within the umbrella of God’s preceptive will) to send our children to a public or private school; but we have no right to bind either of these on someone else. Furthermore, we have the right (i.e., God grants permission) to marry within or outside of our own race; but we have no right to bind our personal convictions in this matter on another person. There are, of course, many other things that could be listed here, but you see the point, do you not?
Is It Possible To Interpret Providence?
Is it possible to know the will of God in and through circumstances that take place in this life? We believe the answer to this question is an emphatic “No.” When an event takes place, we have no way of knowing whether it falls within the decretive or permissive will of God. In a previous article, we defined God’s decretive will as that which God desires and makes happen and His permissive will as that which originates apart from His desire but He permits because of man’s free will, etc. In other words, an event can happen because God wants it to happen and causes it to happen or it may happen for various other reasons. Consequently, an event cannot communicate a message apart from special revelation. In addition, we have no way of knowing whether an event has taken place because of God general providence for all creation or as a result of His special providence concerning the church of Christ.
Many erroneously think that every thing that happens is God’s decretive or purposive will. These folks are clearly wrong. Others, many of them members of the church of Christ, believe they can interpret God’s will or providence by certain events that take place in their lives or the lives of others. For instance, a good man prospers and a bad man suffers hardship. Some are convinced that god is blessing the good man and punishing the bad man. But, is this really the case? What happens when a good man suffers and a bad man prospers? If the book of Job teaches us anything, it teaches us that circumstances or events, apart from revelation, cannot convey God’s decretive will. Job was not suffering because he was an evil man, as his friends surmised - he was suffering because he was a good man. Job’s friends, and even Job himself, had fallen victim of what has been called the “Gamaliel fallacy,” after the false principle offered by Gamaliel in Acts 5:38,39, “And now I say to you, keep away from these men and let them alone; for if this plan or this work is of men, it will come to nothing; but if it is of God, you cannot overthrow it - lest you even be found to fight against God.” Although what Gamaliel said is ultimately true (i.e., in the end, God’s cause will be vindicated), it certainly does not translate into very practical advice. For instance, the Roman Catholic church, with its universal bishop, is an apostate church that has existed in its present form since A.D. 606. Does this mean that God is blessing Catholicism? Of course not. Many other false religions seem to be enjoying great success, according to the way the world counts success. Does this mean that they too are being blessed by God? Again, of course not. Worldly success is not necessarily a sign of God’s blessing. John the baptizer’s ministry did not end in success, according to the world’s standards, and neither did the ministries of the apostles. But, we know they were successful in the sight of God. Therefore, from our finite perspective, we must see Gamaliel’s pronouncement as the fallacy it really is.
Does this mean that it is inappropriate for a Christian to entertain his own private speculation about God’s providential care and certain events that seem to point in the general direction of that providential care? No, we do not believe such to be wrong, but we do believe that even in one’s own private speculation one must be very careful about thinking a certain event or set of circumstances definitely means that God has done this or that or wants this or that to happen. This kind of carefulness was exhibited by Mordecai when he said to Esther, “Yet who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14). Mordecai’s statement was not an indication of his lack of faith in God’s providential care for the Jews. In the same verse, he advised Esther that if she did not help, “deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place.” It appeared to Mordecai that Esther was in the right place at the right time and therefore the hand of God might have been providentially involved in her being queen, but without special revelation he could not definitely know. Let us all learn to be as wise as Mordecai, and as trusting. Mordecai, based upon the promises God had made to His people, was willing to trust God for deliverance.
We can all recount the marvelous things that have happened to us in our lifetimes that we believe were providential. But, we do not preach about these things from the pulpit as proof of God’s special providential care for His children. What we preach from the pulpit is Romans 8:28, “We know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them that are called according to His purpose.” In other words, because of God’s special providential care for us, every circumstance or event that happens to us will have either a good purpose or a good result, so long as we continue to love and obey Him. How do we know this? The Bible—God’s preceptive will—tells us so!
Consequently, our faith in God and His promise relieve us of the burden of trying to figure out whether a particular event happened because of God’s decretive or permissive will, and directs us to a thorough study of His preceptive will.
May God continue to bless you as you study His word.