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Throughout the annals of time, many people have struggled to define the will of God. When we talk about God’s will today, we tend to speak about things in reference to ourselves—usually good things such as our spouses, our children, our jobs, our finances, and our hobbies. Historically, however, when theologians have discussed the will of God, they have done so to say things primarily about God—usually about deep things such as God’s nature, God’s decree, God’s freedom, God’s sovereignty, and God’s wisdom. This wasn’t to ignore life’s big decisions but to locate them in the vast expanse of the eternal purposes of God.
Defining the will of God is important for us as Christians because it unveils who He is as the eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing God. Geerhardus Vos describes God’s will as “that perfection of God by which in a most simple act and in a rational manner He goes out toward Himself as the highest good and toward creatures outside Him for His own sake.” Stated negatively, God’s will cannot be separated from God Himself. Since God is one is essence, His will is undivided. As Richard Muller concisely states, “God is what he wills.” Viewed from our vantage point, the will of God reflects His character, reveals His design for His creation, and manifests His wisdom and power in ordering all that comes to pass for our good and His glory.
A key biblical text for defining the will of God is Deuteronomy 29:29. It states, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” This verse encapsulates “the words of the covenant” that God gave Israel at the end of Moses’ life and ministry (Deut. 29:1). It also provides a biblical-theological framework for understanding the divine will.
The context of Deuteronomy is instructive. As the Lord prepares Joshua to lead Israel into the land of Canaan after the death of Moses, He reminds His people of the necessity of His Word to know His will. This would prove to be a message Israel needed to hear. The anticipation of the promised land would press the limits of Israel’s faith as it navigated the obstacles that often lie in the gap between promise and fulfillment. In the face of the uncertainties that attend life in a fallen world, Israel needed to be reminded that obeying God’s Word was at the center of knowing God’s will for their lives.
At the heart of this passage in Deuteronomy 29 is a distinction between “the secret things” that belong to God and “the things that are revealed” that belong to us and to our children. Building on this distinction, theologians often refer to God’s secret will and to His revealed will. While this point may seem obvious, it is crucial for defining the will of God. There are countless things that we don’t know as humans, since we are finite. But the same cannot be said of God, since He is infinite and all-knowing. God’s knowledge is exactly like Him: absolutely perfect. Unlike us, God does not need to work out problems through deduction. He has no need of counselors to determine what to do in a crisis or to help Him cope with moral conundrums. Since God is infinite and incomprehensible, He has perfect knowledge of Himself and of all things. But this “secret” knowledge belongs to God alone. We might call this the inscrutability of God. There are things known only to God that are past our finding out (see Rom. 11:33–36).
In contrast, our knowledge is like us: finite and incomplete. Since we are created, we depend on God to know His will. More precisely, as God reveals Himself in His Word, we can know His will truly if not comprehensively. The point is that God is the best interpreter of His will. This is why “the things revealed” are so important. Scripture represents the self-revelation of God’s will in written form. While we may not be able to decrypt the “secret things” of God, we can rest confident in knowing the divine will of God to the extent that He has revealed Himself in His Word. For Israel and for us, defining the will of God involves knowing and applying the written Word of God.
When we read God’s revealed will in Scripture, we discover that the Bible makes several other distinctions between God’s decretive will, God’s preceptive will, and God’s will of good pleasure. The decretive will of God refers to His perfect and wise counsel in freely ordaining or decreeing whatsoever comes to pass. As the Apostle Paul states in Ephesians 1:11, “In [Christ] we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.” God’s decretive will underscores His total sovereignty over all things, including creation and redemption, history and providence. As such, it can never be thwarted, not even by our sin and disobedience. This is not to suggest that God delights in sin or is the author of sin but to say that He permits it in order to accomplish His sovereign will.
God’s preceptive will represents the moral standard that God requires all people to meet. It tells us what God demands of us as His image bearers; it broadcasts what we should do, regardless of whether we obey it. The preceptive will of God, concisely summarized for us in the Ten Commandments, is also known as the moral law. As the Westminster Larger Catechism states,
The moral law is the declaration of the will of God to mankind, directing and binding every one to personal, perfect, and perpetual conformity and obedience thereunto, in the frame and disposition of the whole man, soul, and body, and in performance of all those duties of holiness and righteousness which he owes to God and man; promising life upon the fulfilling, and threatening death upon the breach of it. (WLC 93)
In short, the logic of the preceptive will of God is summarized in the maxim “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16).
A lesser-known but related distinction is God’s will of good pleasure. This dispositional will has two parts. One the one hand, it refers to the pleasure of God in ordaining His sovereign decree. For example, Ephesians 1:5 speaks of God’s lovingly predestining His people in Christ “according to the good pleasure of his will” (KJV). And Ephesians 1:9 unpacks how God made known the mystery of His will in Christ “according to his good pleasure.” On the other hand, it refers to the delight of God when we do what He wills (see Rom. 12:2; Eph. 5:10; Col. 3:20). In this sense, God is pleased when we obey and displeased when we disobey.
While these distinctions help us nuance the biblical teaching on the will of God, we should not conclude that there are competing or contradictory wills in God. The divine will reflects the single, unified plan of the one true God. A classic illustration of this principle is found in the Apostle Peter’s sermon at Pentecost. In Acts 2:22–23, he states,
Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.
From one perspective, the execution of Jesus violated God’s preceptive will, since the killing of an innocent man is murder. Yet, from the standpoint of God’s decretive will, we are told that the crucifixion was according to God’s sovereign plan. Moreover, the prophet Isaiah highlights God’s will of good pleasure when he states of Christ that “it pleased the LORD to bruise him . . . and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand” (Isa. 53:10, KJV). The cross of Christ helps us understand how nothing can frustrate the will of God in securing the salvation of His people for the glory of His name.
As we confront decisions big and small, we should not conclude that our response is simply to “let go and let God.” Trusting in God’s will involves actively resting in His divine wisdom and submitting to His Word. While the secret things of God remain a mystery, we know with certainty that the will of God involves cultivating holiness and thanksgiving at every juncture (1 Thess. 4:3; 5:18). We may be tempted to fret about tomorrow, but a study of the will of God summons us to a life of obedience today.