May 09, 2006

What exactly is "God's will"?

Way back in the summer of 2004, I began working on a series of posts about one of my theological hobby horses: knowing and doing the will of God. I got about four or five posts in before running out of steam.

One of my goals for this year is to emphasize theology a little more than last. This series is a good candidate to revive, since I have already laid the foundation. The young adult class at my church, for which I am a leader and sometime teacher, recently went over the topic, so it is fresh on my mind. And searches on the "perfect will of God" and similar subjects still bring people to the Crusty Curmudgeon from the search engines, so I owe it to my readers to keep up my work. (I am gratified to see that although the blog has practically laid fallow for the last month, I'm still getting upwards of 75 visits per day!) Finally, I see that James Spurgeon is posting his Bible study notes on Galatians; I hope that ramping up my own Bible studies might encourage me to complete that series as well - before he overtakes me!

Here's a summary of what I have written on this subject already.

  • In my introduction to this series, I noted that many people treat God's will like an itinerary which they need to discover and stick to. I submit, however, that the Biblical model is more like having freedom to choose within certain revealed, constraining boundaries.
  • I blogged about the "itinerary" model's origin in the Keswick Holiness movement of the 19th century. The Holiness movement shifted the emphasis of personal holiness from active obedience to passive surrender. Observing the excesses of those within the movement, Holiness leader Hannah Whitall Smith admitted that the only thing really needed to discern the will of God was the Bible.
  • The "perfect will" of God that Paul speaks of in Romans 12:2 is not an individual will for our lives that we are expected to discover and follow perfectly; he is speaking of the revealed will of God for all Christians. It is perfect because it is complete and does not need improvement. Paul then lists many practical ways to live out God's perfect will: living at peace with others, building up the Church, respecting the government, and so forth.
  • Many of the means Christians use to discern God's will for their lives - laying out fleeces, inner peace, and attentiveness to the "still small voice" - are discovered to be something else entirely when the relevant passages of the Bible are closely scrutinized.
  • What the Bible sometimes calls "open doors" are providential opportunities to serve God. While it is right to seek them out, we need not worry about taking every opportunity that comes our way, or accidentally taking the wrong opportunity. All of them come from God. We should be thankful that he has provided us such a wide selection of opportunities to do his work.

Enough of bashing the opposition, however. I know plenty of Christians who talk like that when they are faced with important decisions. Since they aren't destroying their lives, it behooves me to be charitable; a decision-making paradigm isn't exactly egregious theological error. Although I will probably post other isolated critiques of the mystical model from time to time, from this point on I want to build a positive case for what I believe to be a more biblically sound model. And the best place to start is to define our terms. When we talk about the will of God, what, exactly, are we talking about?

There are two ways in which theologians think of God's will. (Some, such as John Piper, say God has "two wills."1 I prefer to think in terms of God having two aspects to his will. Nonetheless, semantics aside, Piper and I are basically on the same page: God has two ways of "willing.") Different theologians have come up with different terms with which to label these two aspects:

  • God's decretive will and prescriptive will
  • God's sovereign will and moral will
  • God's secret will and revealed will
  • God's will of decree and will of desire
  • many more

As I discuss these concepts, I'll try to be as consistent in my terminology as I can. We'll start tomorrow with a quick survey of God's decreed will.


1 John Piper, "Are There Two Wills in God?"; available from; Internet; accessed 9 May 2006.