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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine God’s will. Dr. Spencer, we ended last time by looking at 1 Peter 1:18-20, and in verse 20 it says that Christ “was chosen before the creation of the world” [1]. You also pointed out that he was chosen for the purpose of becoming incarnate and giving his life as an atonement to save his people from their sins. And that all of this is part of God’s decretive will.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it is part, God decrees everything that happens, even our sin. Listen to what the apostle Peter said to the crowd on the day of Pentecost. We read this in Acts 2:22-24, “Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.”

Marc Roby: And in Acts 4:28 we read that the believers were praying about the authorities crucifying Jesus Christ and they said, “They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.”

Dr. Spencer: God’s will is wonderful. He can work directly in this universe, as he did in creation and as he does in regeneration, but he normally uses secondary agents to accomplish his purposes. In this case, he used this horrible sin of crucifying the completely innocent God-man Jesus Christ to bring about the redemption of his people. It completely boggles the mind. God used what was the worst sin ever committed to bring about the greatest good ever achieved.

Marc Roby: And yet Judas, who betrayed Jesus, was still morally culpable for his sin. And so were the Jewish leaders who conspired against him and condemned him, and so was Pontius Pilate, the prefect of the Roman province of Judaea, who acceded to their demands; they were all morally culpable for their sins even though they were accomplishing God’s set purpose in doing so.

Dr. Spencer: They most certainly were morally responsible for their sins. No one forced them to sin, even though God had ordained from before the creation of the world that they would do so. The theological term used to describe the fact that God’s free will and our free will can work together to accomplish exactly what God has foreordained, or decreed, is called concurrence. It is a very important concept.

Marc Roby: And, of course, the crucifixion of Christ is not the only dramatic example of concurrence. The story of Joseph being sold into slavery in Egypt gives us another great example.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it does. But in order to give that example, we need to remind our listeners of some of the facts relating to Joseph’s life.

Marc Roby: Alright, let me begin. Joseph was one of the twelve Patriarchs of the Jewish people. He was the favorite son of his father Jacob, who was the son of Isaac, the son God promised to Abraham and Sarah. Joseph’s brothers hated him because he was his father’s favorite, so they sold him to some Midianite slave traders who were heading down to Egypt and then told their father Jacob that he had been killed by a wild animal. Joseph was later sold to Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard.

Dr. Spencer: And we read about all of that in Genesis Chapter 37. But God was gracious to Joseph in Egypt and through a long process, which included his being unjustly imprisoned for years, he miraculously became second in command in Egypt as we read in Chapters 39-41 of Genesis. We also read that there was a severe famine in the land and Joseph was in charge of Pharaoh’s storehouses of grain.

Marc Roby: And in Chapter 42 of Genesis we are told that there was also famine in the land of Canaan, where Joseph’s brothers and father lived. And because they heard that there was grain in Egypt, Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt to buy grain for their families. In doing so, they came before their brother Joseph.

Dr. Spencer: And there is a lot that we are leaving out in order to get to our main point. This is a marvelous story of God’s grace and sovereignty and I encourage our listeners to read it if they don’t know the story. But to move on, Joseph’s brothers didn’t recognize him because he now spoke, dressed and acted like an Egyptian, but he recognized them. I will again leave out a lot of wonderful and edifying material from Chapters 43 through 49 and just say that Joseph eventually revealed himself to his brothers and then his entire family, including his father Jacob, moved down to Egypt.

Marc Roby: And Jacob died in Egypt, which then left Joseph’s brothers worried. In Genesis 50:15 we read that “When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, ‘What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?’”

Dr. Spencer: And we finally come to the verses we want to discuss today. In Genesis 50:19-21 we read, “But Joseph said to them, ‘Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.’ And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.”

Marc Roby: What a gracious response that was.

Dr. Spencer: It was incredibly gracious, but Joseph saw God’s purpose in all that had happened. I’m sure that as a human being he must have struggled with all of the trials he went through because of his brother’s hatred, and in the material we skipped over we do see him exacting a bit of revenge. But the main point here, just as we saw in Acts regarding the crucifixion of Jesus, is the concurrence between the free, sinful actions of human beings and God’s ultimate purpose and decrees.

Marc Roby: Now I suspect that that will sound very strange to many of our listeners. The idea that God would, in any way, concur with sinful acts.

Dr. Spencer: I’m sure that does sound strange to anyone who has not heard of this doctrine before. The word concur is often used to indicate agreement or approval, but it can also simply mean to act together toward some common goal, in which case it does not imply approval of the actions of the other person. And that is the sense in which we are using the word here.

God’s actions and the sinful actions of human beings can work together to bring about a result that God has decreed will happen, but there is no implication that God approves of the sinful actions.

Marc Roby: Louis Berkhof gives a good definition of concurrence in his systematic theology text. He writes that “Concurrence may be defined as the cooperation of the divine power with all subordinate powers, according to the pre-established laws of their operation, causing them to act and to act precisely as they do.”[2]

Dr. Spencer: That is a great definition. We will have more to say about concurrence, which is part of the doctrine of God’s providence, when we finish with God’s attributes. But for now, let me just point out a couple of things. First, note that Berkhof talks about divine power and subordinate powers. God is in complete control of his creation. That does not mean that we are all puppets, but it does mean that we are completely subordinate. No one can thwart God’s plans. He brings about exactly what he has decreed will happen. When we sin, he uses our sin, together with other factors, to bring about his purposes.

Marc Roby: That’s an amazing thing to think about.

Dr. Spencer: It really is. But I also like the fact that Berkhof mentions the “pre-established laws” that are in operation. There are, for example, the laws of nature, which God himself established and upholds, but there are also laws, if you will, of human behavior. As we noted in Session 84 and will talk about more when we get to biblical anthropology, we do have free wills, but our wills are not absolutely free. We cannot violate our own nature. Which is perfectly logical and reasonable. It strikes me as exceedingly strange, to say the least, to think that I have the freedom to choose to do something that goes completely against all of my own inclinations and desires.

Marc Roby: That is indeed illogical. But, now that we have established that in order to accomplish his decretive will God works through secondary agents, including even the sinful actions of human beings, what else do you want to say about the will of God?

Dr. Spencer: Well, since we have been talking about human sin and its relation to God’s will, I want to stick with that general idea and talk about what is usually called God’s permissive will. I can’t find a good definition of this term in any of my theology texts because theologians seem to not use the term. But Christians use it reasonably often, so I think we should discuss it. I think that what people usually mean by God’s permissive will is that it encompasses all those things that God allows to happen even though they are not what he desires or commands to have happen.

Marc Roby: And these actions may include sin as well as things that are not, in themselves sin.

Dr. Spencer: I think that’s right. And although I can’t find a theologian speaking about God’s permissive will, Berkhof does talk about the fact that God’s eternal decree, which is basically synonymous with what we have been calling God’s decretive will, is permissive with respect to human sin.

Marc Roby: Now, that’s an interesting statement, can you explain what he means by that?

Dr. Spencer: Yes, I can. He wrote that when God decrees human sin, “It is a decree which renders the future sinful act absolutely certain, but in which God determines (a) not to hinder the sinful self-determination of the finite will; and (b) to regulate and control the result of this sinful self-determination.”[3]

Marc Roby: This sounds like concurrence again, mixed in with God’s sovereign control of all things, including human sin. Berkhof’s point seems to be that God permits sin, but it is never outside of his control and is used by him to accomplish his own purposes.

Dr. Spencer: I think that’s a fair summary.

Marc Roby: When people speak of God’s permissive will, it is usually in some way contrasted with his perfect will.

Dr. Spencer: That contrast is what you typically hear.[4] And what is usually meant by God’s perfect will for us is almost synonymous with his revealed, or preceptive will. It is what God has commanded us to do, although it often goes beyond that. For example, someone might talk about it not being God’s perfect will for them to marry a particular individual, whereas Scripture, of course, does not command us to marry or not marry a specific individual. It only gives us the command that as Christians, we must marry another Christian.

Marc Roby: I’ve certainly heard that kind of talk, and it does make a valid point. We can make decisions that are not necessarily sinful, they aren’t the wisest choice. God will not usually intervene in any direct way to stop his people from making bad decisions, or even from sinning, so we need to be careful to not conclude that just because he allows us to do something, that it is the best thing to do, or even to conclude that it isn’t sin.

Dr. Spencer: I agree that is the point usually being made when people talk about God’s permissive will versus his perfect will. And it is an important point. It should scare us to know that God will allow us to make bad decisions. And it should scare us even more when we read, for example, that God allowed King David to commit adultery and murder. We would prefer to read that David was prevented from doing so. But the reality is that, for his own perfect purposes, God allows his people to sin, sometimes grievously. And we cannot take any solace in the fact that he is sovereign even over our sins and will somehow use them to accomplish his good purposes. It would always, without exception, be better for us to not sin.

Marc Roby: I completely agree. We need to seek to be led by the Word of God, with the help of the Holy Spirit, in order to avoid sin and even decisions that are not sinful, but that are also not the wisest choice.

Dr. Spencer: And we have a great promise from God about temptation to sin. In 1 Corinthians 10:13 we read that “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.”

Marc Roby: Yes, that is a great promise. But it does not say that God will not allow us to be tempted. It only says that he will not allow us to be tempted beyond what we can bear.

Dr. Spencer: And the painful truth is that we sometimes give in to temptation in spite of God keeping it limited to what we can bear. We need to be very careful to watch our life and doctrine closely as the apostle Paul wrote to Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:16. God will provide a way out of every temptation, but we must look for it and avail ourselves of it. If we don’t, we will suffer harm.

Marc Roby: Yes, and very often others will be harmed as well.

Dr. Spencer: That’s quite true. This is why Jesus taught in the Lord’s prayer to pray that God would deliver us from temptation. He also told us to pray “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10), which is obviously speaking about God’s preceptive will; in other words, we are praying that people, including ourselves, would obey God’s commands. It would make no sense for this to refer to God’s decretive will since whatever God decrees will, in fact, happen. Therefore, if this referred to God’s decretive will we would be praying that God would cause what is going to happen to happen.

Marc Roby: That certainly wouldn’t make any sense. But I doubt that many people are consciously aware that they are praying for their own obedience when they pray the Lord’s prayer. What else do you want to say about God’s will?

Dr. Spencer: I think it is important to distinguish between what theologians call God’s necessary and free wills.

Marc Roby: We have already pointed out that there are things that God cannot do, so his necessary will must refer to those things which he must do because he is God. Things like continuing to exist and always telling the truth.

Dr. Spencer: That is exactly what is meant, so in a sense we’ve covered God’s necessary will already. But the important point I want to make is that God also does many things freely, and it is particularly important for us to know that creation was God’s free decision. He did not need to create this universe for any reason. Nor did he need to redeem anyone after the fall.

Marc Roby: You do sometimes here Christians talk about God creating us for fellowship, which sounds a bit like he would be lonely without us.

Dr. Spencer: That is precisely the view I want to oppose. It is unbiblical. God is love as we are told in 1 John 4:16, and that is an essential attribute of God. It is part of his fundamental nature. It was true before he ever created this universe. There was absolutely perfect love and fellowship between the persons of the Trinity prior to the creation of this universe. God did not need to create. Wayne Grudem states it well in his systematic theology. He wrote that “It would be wrong for us ever to try to find a necessary cause for creation or redemption in the being of God himself, for that would rob God of his total independence. It would be to say that without us God could not truly be God. God’s decisions to create and to redeem were totally free decisions.”[5]

Marc Roby: That is a very important, and humbling, point. Is there anything else you wanted to say about God’s will?

Dr. Spencer: I want to go back to the Lord’s prayer and note again that in that prayer Christ taught us to pray that God’s will would be done on earth, which certainly includes in our own lives. If we have surrendered our lives to Christ, we must work hard to submit our will to his will. When Jesus was crying out to the Father from the Mount of Olives prior to his crucifixion, we read in Luke 22:42 that he prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” That is the kind of complete submission to God that all of us should strive to achieve in our own lives.

I’ve heard that people used to add the letters D.V. to statements of their intentions for the future. For example, I might write that I will visit you in Oregon this summer, D.V. The letters D.V. stand for the Latin phrase deo volente, and mean God willing.

Marc Roby: Which comes, of course, from James 4:13-15, where we read, “Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’”

Dr. Spencer: I assume that is where it comes from, yes. And although I’m sure it can easily become a meaningless cliché used to try and sound godly, it is a good sentiment to have in mind at all times. As Christians, our job is to seek to know and do the will of God. As Jesus himself told us in John 13:17, “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”

Marc Roby: I think that is a good place to end for today, so let me remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org and we’ll do our best to respond to them.

 

[1] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[2] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1938, pg. 171

[3] Ibid, pg. 105

[4] It shows up, for example, in a popular old daily devotional called My Utmost for his Highest by Oswald Chambers, see the entry for December 16.

[5] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, pg. 213

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine God’s will. Dr. Spencer, in our previous discussion, you made the point that God truly desires that all people be saved, and yet he does not in fact save everyone because to do so would not serve his ultimate purpose of making his own glory manifest as well as the universe we live in does. Doesn’t this leave you open to the charge of somehow limiting God’s options?

Dr. Spencer: Well, I’m not limiting God’s options, but his options are, in fact, limited. God is not free to do absolutely anything. We mentioned this briefly before when we were discussing God’s Sovereignty and man’s free will in Session 65. For example, we are told in Hebrews 6:18 that “it is impossible for God to lie”. [1] But there are many other things God cannot do.

Marc Roby: I think John Frame has a useful discussion on this topic in his book The Doctrine of God.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, he does. He lists six kinds of actions that God cannot perform.[2] First, he cannot perform logically contradictory actions.

Marc Roby: Like making a square circle.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And Frame makes an important point in this regard. When we say that there are things God cannot do, this is not to say that there is a weakness in God. God cannot do things that are logically contradictory because, as Frame says, “The laws of logic are an aspect of his own character.”[3] We could reasonably call logic one of God’s attributes, although that is not normally done. It is not a weakness that God is unable to go against his own character.

Marc Roby: What else does Frame say that God cannot do?

Dr. Spencer: He cannot do anything immoral.

Marc Roby: And, certainly, no one could rationally consider that a weakness. It is, in fact, a great strength. As you noted a moment ago, he can’t lie. And James 1:13 tells us that “God cannot be tempted by evil”. What else does Frame say God cannot do?

Dr. Spencer: He cannot do things that are appropriate only for creatures, like celebrating a birthday. He can do these things in the incarnate person of Jesus Christ, but not in his deity. But this inability is again an indication of his strength, not a weakness. He also cannot deny his own nature as God by, for example, ceasing to be God. God can’t commit suicide.

Marc Roby: Well, that seems pretty obvious, and certainly can’t be thought of as a weakness. What else?

Dr. Spencer: God can’t change his eternal plan. In a sense, to do so would be to deny his nature as the perfect, unchangeable God.

Marc Roby: Okay, I believe that is five things, but you said Frame listed six, so what is the last one?

Dr. Spencer: The last one is more interesting, although it sounds silly at first blush. It is the age-old question of whether or not God can make a stone so large that he can’t lift it.

Marc Roby: Okay, I’ll be honest and say that that does sound downright silly at first blush.

Dr. Spencer: Well, I’ll admit that I was surprised when I read in Frame’s book that philosophers have written about this question fairly recently. The problem of course, is supposed to be that if God can make such a stone, then he can’t lift it and is therefore not omnipotent. And, on the other hand, if he can’t make such a stone, then he again is not omnipotent. The question is an attempt to show that God’s being omnipotent is somehow a logical contradiction.

But I don’t think it presents a serious challenge to the idea of God’s omnipotence. We have already said that God’s omnipotence does not mean he can do anything, and we have already listed five kinds of things he can’t do. Frame suggests that this one fits into the category of God not being able to do things that are appropriate only for finite creatures. We, for example, are certainly capable of making things too heavy for us to lift without machines, just think of a bus or truck, or even an automobile.

Marc Roby: That is obviously true, but it is also true that we can’t create anything out of nothing, meaning no pre-existing matter, which is the kind of creating God has done.

Dr. Spencer: You’re right, and Frame doesn’t address that point. He uses the human example simply to show that the question does not fit into the category of logically contradictory actions. I’m not going to spend any time to get into the fine points of logic that I assume must be involved in the philosophical discussions about this question. I would simply say that since God can create this universe out of nothing, and is also capable of destroying it in an instant, it is pretty clear to me that he can’t create a stone too heavy for him to lift. But that is not a sign of weakness, nor does it challenge his omnipotence. It is, rather, a sign of his unlimited power.

Marc Roby: I completely agree. It’s amazing the lengths people will go to sometimes to try and disprove the existence of God. They really don’t like the idea of an omnipotent, omniscient, all holy and just God judging them at the end of their life.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true. But, as we’re told in Romans Chapter 1, they are suppressing the truth because in their heart of hearts they know that God exists.

Marc Roby: We got onto this topic of things that God cannot do because you were answering my challenge that you might have left yourself open to the charge of limiting God’s options when you argued that God didn’t create a universe without sin, even though such a universe would please him, because such a universe would not accomplish his main goal of making his own glory manifest as well as this one does.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. Even God is limited by his own perfect, unchangeable, eternal, holy nature. He can’t die, he can’t lie and he can’t do anything that contradicts his own nature. We’ve argued before that he is perfect and all he does is perfect. We are told in Deuteronomy 32:4 that “He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he.”

Marc Roby: We also read in 2 Samuel 22:31 that “As for God, his way is perfect; the word of the LORD is flawless.”

Dr. Spencer: And, perhaps most famously, in Matthew 5:48 Jesus himself told us, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” There are other Scriptures we could cite as well, but it is clear that God is perfect and all he does is perfect. Therefore, when he chose to create this universe for the manifestation of his own glory, that was the best possible purpose for creation.

Marc Roby: We have made that argument before, in Session 75. And since we are talking about God’s will, there is one more verse I would like to cite about God’s perfection because it tells us specifically that his will is perfect. In Romans 12:2 we are commanded, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

Dr. Spencer: That is a great verse for our present purposes. And the point I’m trying to make is that in accomplishing that purpose, even God is limited. Not by weakness, but by his perfections. Because all that he does is perfect, he was constrained to create the perfect universe to accomplish his perfect purpose, even if there were some things about that universe that he himself didn’t like.

Marc Roby: Now that’s a difficult concept to wrap your brain around.

Dr. Spencer: I agree. But I think that it is a necessary conclusion based on what we are told in the Bible. So, let’s get back to the verse that started this whole discussion and state our conclusions.

Marc Roby: You mean 2 Peter 3:9 of course, where we read that “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that’s the verse. And the problem we have been addressing is, if God wants everyone to come to repentance, then why don’t all people repent, trust in Christ, and be saved? And the answer is that this verse is speaking about God’s will of disposition as we saw last time. In other words, it is telling us something real and true about the nature of God, he does not take pleasure in the fact that people sin, refuse to repent and, as a result, go to hell. And yet, he is the one who sends people to hell. He does this because it is necessary to accomplish his overall purpose for creation.

Marc Roby: And, again, we struggle to grasp and accept this truth because it implies the necessity of evil and of eternal hell.

Dr. Spencer: Absolutely. But, as we have noted before, what I like doesn’t have any bearing on what is true. I don’t like the fact I’m growing old. I don’t like the fact that I get sick. There are all kinds of things I don’t like that are, nonetheless, true. The astounding thing is that we can conclude from 2 Peter 3:9 combined with the obvious fact that not everyone repents, that there are some things that God doesn’t like, but which are, nonetheless true.

Marc Roby: But, as you have been careful to point out, this is not because there is any weakness in God.

Dr. Spencer: No, it is definitely not because of weakness. There doesn’t need to be any weakness or imperfection in order to be constrained. God is constrained by his own nature, which includes his perfect mercy and love, but also his perfect justice and wrath. As human beings we understand the idea of being constrained by things outside of our control. And even in our case it is not always a sign of weakness or imperfection. I’ve spent most of my life as an engineer and engineers deal with constraints all the time. Some of those constraints are caused by our limitations, but others are not.

Marc Roby: It seems like the really important question would be then, which constraints are fundamental and therefore, insurmountable.

Dr. Spencer: That is an important question, and for us it isn’t always easy tell which is which. I’ve seen a number of technological advances in my lifetime that were at one time considered fundamentally impossible. So I’m not about to go out on a limb and say which specific constraints are fundamental and which are due to our own limitations, but it would appear, for example, that travelling faster than the speed of light is impossible. And, to be far more mundane, it is almost certainly impossible to build a comfortable, quiet car that uses water for fuel, goes 1,000 miles on a tank of water, and costs only a $1,000 to build.

Marc Roby: And the point we’ve been making is simply that even God is constrained in some ways, but not because of any weakness or imperfection in him. In fact, his constraints are the result of his perfections.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. Theologians talk about God’s decretive will, which is those things which God has decreed will happen. And his decretive will is not the same as his will of disposition, which is those things that God would like, at least in some sense, to have happen. You could truthfully say that God decrees some things that he doesn’t like.

Marc Roby: John Frame says something very similar. He notes that “there are some good things that, by virtue of the nature of God’s plan, will never be realized.”[4] And that “God’s broad intentions for history may exclude the blessing of a world existing without any history of evil.”[5]

Dr. Spencer: Frame also gives an important warning. He notes that “God’s will is, of course, one; but since it is complex, some have distinguished different aspects of it – different ‘wills.’ We should be careful with this language, but it does make it easier for us to consider the complications of our topic.”[6]

Marc Roby: That’s a good warning. We always have to keep in mind God’s simplicity – that he is not made up of parts. We can talk about his will of disposition or his will of decree as a way to help us to understand, but we must not think there are different parts of God that are somehow in conflict with each other.

Dr. Spencer: Absolutely true. God has one will and he has one overarching purpose for creation, which is the manifestation of his own glory. But there are also a number of other purposes that we could say are subordinate to his overarching purpose. Foremost among those subordinate purposes is his redeeming a people for himself.

Marc Roby: And these people comprise the church, the body and bride of Christ. They are those who have been chosen from before the creation of the world as we read in Ephesians 1:4, which says, “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.”

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And all of those whom God has chosen either have been or will be called, regenerated, sanctified and glorified. We read an abbreviated description of this process in Romans 8:30, which says that “those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.” To achieve this goal, God has given man his revelation, which tells us how we should live.

Marc Roby: And theologians refer to that as God’s revealed will.

Dr. Spencer: Exactly. Although Frame prefers to call it God’s preceptive will, which refers to his precepts, or commands. There are other names used as well, but I don’t want to get into all of them at this time. The main point here is that God has revealed to us what we are to do. And he doesn’t tell us everything we might like to know, but he has told us what we need to know.

Marc Roby: We see the difference between God’s decretive will and his revealed will clearly in Moses’ statement to the Israelites on the plains of Moab, to the east of the Jordon river, just before he died and Joshua led them into the Promised Land. He was going over the laws God had given them and in Deuteronomy 29:29 he told them, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.”

Dr. Spencer: And “The secret things” refers to God’s decretive will, those things which he has foreordained should come to pass, which is also sometimes called his secret will. And notice that Moses says they “belong to the LORD our God”, meaning that we often don’t know them until they come to pass and, since they belong to God, we aren’t to pry into them. But then there are the “things revealed”, which “belong to us and to our children forever”. This is God’s revealed will, or his preceptive will, and Moses gives us the reason for God’s giving it to us; it is so that “we may follow all the words of this law.”

Marc Roby: And we should take a moment to point out that it is great mercy on God’s part that he has given us this revelation.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, we should all take time to meditate on God’s amazing goodness and mercy to us. But before we finish for today there is a major difference between God’s decretive will and his preceptive will that we should point out. Let me quote from John Frame again. He correctly states that “God’s decretive will cannot be successfully opposed; what God has decreed will certainly take place. It is possible, however, for creatures to disobey God’s preceptive will – and they often do so.”[7]

Marc Roby: But, praise God, he also decreed, from before the creation of the world, to send a Savior to redeem his people. We read about that in 1 Peter 1:18-20, “For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake.”

Dr. Spencer: That is wonderful. And it shows that God was not surprised by the fall. He planned all of creation and all of history before anything in this universe existed. He knew Satan would fall. He knew Adam would fall. He had it all planned. As you just read, Jesus Christ “was chosen before the creation of the world”. And what was he chosen to do? He was chosen to become incarnate, to be born to a virgin, to live a perfect sinless life and then to die a horrible death on the cross as a substitute for us. All of this was according to God’s decretive will.

Marc Roby: That’s astounding. And I look forward to continuing our discussion of God’s perfect will next time, but now it is time to remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org and we’ll do our best to respond to them.

 

[1] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[2] John Frame, The Doctrine of God, P&R Publishing Company, 2002, pp518-521

[3] Ibid, pg. 518

[4] Ibid, pg. 530

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid, pg. 531

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine God’s communicable attributes. Today we are going to look at God’s will. Dr. Spencer, this is an extremely difficult and important topic. How would you like to start?

Dr. Spencer: I want to start by defining what we mean by the will.

Marc Roby: That sounds like a good thing to do. And perhaps we could start off with a dictionary definition of the noun “will”. If I look in my Webster’s dictionary, probably the definition most appropriate to this discussion is that the will is the act of choosing or determining.[1]

Dr. Spencer: That’s a fairly good short definition. Charles Hodge defines the will as the power, or faculty, of self-determination.[2] In other words, it is the ability to make decisions about what to do.

Marc Roby: Of course, we don’t always have the power to carry out what we decide to do.

Dr. Spencer: No, we don’t. And that’s a critical difference between us and God. Whatever God ultimately decides to do will, in fact, be done. We read in Proverbs 19:21 that “Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the LORD’s purpose that prevails.” [3] And, in Isaiah 55:10-11 God tells us, “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” God’s will, expressed through his powerful word, is always efficacious.

Marc Roby: And we are again confronted by the Creator/creature distinction.

Dr. Spencer: That we are. And Hodge goes on to say that “The will is not only an essential attribute of our spiritual being, but it is the necessary condition of our personality. Without the power of rational self-determination we should be as much a mere force as electricity, or magnetism, or the principle of vegetable life. It is, therefore, to degrade God below the sphere of being which we ourselves occupy, as rational creatures, to deny to Him the power of self-determination; of acting or not acting, according to his own good pleasure.”[4]

Marc Roby: That’s an important point. God reveals himself to be a personal God, not an impersonal force as is sometimes imagined.

Dr. Spencer: And because God’s will is efficacious as we noted a minute ago, John Frame says that “a simple but accurate definition” is that “God’s will is anything he wants to happen.” Or that “God’s will is what pleases him.”

Marc Roby: Saying both that God’s will is what pleases him and that it is efficacious immediately raises a theological problem. In 2 Peter 3:9 we read that “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” So, if God’s will is efficacious, and he wants everyone to come to repentance, it would seem reasonable to conclude that everyone will, ultimately, be saved. But the Bible clearly teaches that not everyone is saved. How do you handle that problem?

Dr. Spencer: Well, we have to be more careful in defining and talking about the will. When we use the word “will” we mean different things at different times. Now this discussion will take a while, but we’ll get back to God’s will later. Let me give a human example to explain what I mean.

Marc Roby: Okay, please do.

Dr. Spencer: Suppose it’s a really cold, rainy miserable Saturday in January here in California and I’m watching a golf tournament on TV that is being played in Hawaii, where it is at that time sunny and beautiful. I might be prompted to say something like, “Boy, I wish I was there instead of here.” Now the question I want to ask is whether that expression is a true statement of my desires.

Marc Roby: It would certainly be understandable if it were.

Dr. Spencer: And in one sense it might genuinely be my desire. It would, in fact, be more pleasant to be there at that particular moment. But then you have to back up and think about it a bit. I have the financial wherewithal to travel to Hawaii and the poor weather was most likely predicted in advance. Therefore, if being in Hawaii on that Saturday was really and truly what I desired most, I could have been there. We can conclude, therefore, that my statement of desire, while genuine, was not the final judgment I made on the matter. When all of the factors were taken into account my greatest desire was to be right where I was.

Marc Roby: I see your point.

Dr. Spencer: The great theologian Jonathan Edwards wrote that “It is that motive, which, as it stands in the view of the mind, is the strongest, that determines the Will.[5] To put it more colloquially, his thesis, which he defends quite convincingly, is that we do exactly that which we most want to do at any given moment, but limited, of course, to those things which we are able to do.

Marc Roby: I think most people would balk at the idea that they always do what they most want to do. There are many examples of things we do that we would rarely say are what we most want to do at the moment. Like go to work in the morning, or do physical exercise, or refrain from eating a second piece of cake and so on.

Dr. Spencer: I had exactly that sort of objection when I first heard this idea as well, but the objection doesn’t stand up under careful scrutiny. Let’s examine the examples you gave. We have all experienced waking up in the morning, looking at the clock and just wishing that the day would go away. The last thing we want to do is get up and go to work, or school if we’re younger. We don’t need to go into all the reasons why we might feel that way on any given day, I’m pretty sure that all of our listeners can relate to the sentiment.

Marc Roby: I certainly know that I can. And I could give you a good list of reasons if you like.

Dr. Spencer: Well, let’s save those for another discussion. But given that we sometimes feel that way, and recognizing that we occasionally do give in to those sinful inclinations and stay home, why do we usually get up and go to work or school anyway? The answer is that when we consider all of our available options, getting up and going to school or work is actually what we most want to do!

For example, consider work. I know that if I don’t get up and go to work, I’m going to have to give some explanation to my boss. And if that happens very often, I’m going to lose my job. If I lose my job, I can’t pay my rent, can’t buy my groceries and so on. If I have a family, there are others who will be affected as well. So, when I consider all of these factors, the thing I actually want to do most is get up and go to work.

Marc Roby: Unfortunately, I see your point. Perhaps a simple way to put it is to use the common expression “all things being equal”. In other words, all things being equal, I would rather not get up and go into work, but all things are not equal. There are unpleasant consequences that would result from not going to work.

Dr. Spencer: That is a good way to put. It is virtually never true that all other things will work out the same independent of my decisions. Decisions have consequences, and those consequences are considered as part of the process our minds go through in deciding what we most want to do at the moment. I suppose you could say that is a mild form of coercion, but whether you think about it that way or not, it is reality. Even if we lived in a world where we didn’t have to work, there would still be constraints. If I wanted to eat something, I’d have to get up and go get it. Or, even in some future world with super capable robot servants, I would at least have to tell the robot what it is I want it to bring me.

Marc Roby: I think I might like that future world.

Dr. Spencer: There are times when we all would. But let’s look at the second thing you listed that people do, but usually don’t say they enjoy, getting physical exercise. There are again consequences for neglecting the task. And let’s link it with the third thing you mentioned, refraining from eating a second piece of cake. If we just eat all that we want to eat and don’t get any exercise, we all know what the result will be. We will get more and more overweight and over time will develop a number of health problems related to our inactivity and weight and these things will make our lives less enjoyable. Now, it’s obvious from looking at people that different individuals choose different levels of physical fitness, so not everyone decides on the same balance between momentary pleasure and long-term health.

Marc Roby: And there are huge variations in people’s natural metabolisms and body types that contribute to the differences as well.

Dr. Spencer: That’s all true. But Edwards’ point is valid. All things considered, we do that which we most want to do at any given moment.

Marc Roby: Now, of course, most of our decisions are not carefully thought out, so we can’t really say we sit down and think all of this through every time we decide whether or not to eat a second piece of cake.

Dr. Spencer: Of course not, we are all creatures of habit. But if we are adults we hopefully think about our behavior and work to change bad habits, so even snap decisions are really the result of our underlying priorities and thought. It’s also true that we don’t always consider all of the consequences of our actions as carefully as we should, which can bring us trouble. But, ultimately, all of these things are free choices we make and my only point is that when we say we are doing something we don’t want to do, that isn’t really completely true. Unless we are being physically forced, we are, in fact, doing what we most want to do. It’s just that our decision is being influenced by other factors so that our choice is not always the one that maximizes our immediate pleasure. So, when I say these are free choices, I mean that they are free only in the sense that no one is physically forcing us. No decisions are free in the sense of having absolutely no consequences or causes.

Marc Roby: We’ve gotten pretty far away from the theological problem we were addressing. How does all of this tie back in to understanding how God’s will can be efficacious, and that he can want everyone to come to repentance, and yet not have everyone actually come to repentance?

Dr. Spencer: What we’ve been talking about with human beings applies directly. God reveals himself to us in terms that we can understand. Therefore, just as I can truthfully say that I would like to have a large chocolate milkshake along with my lunch most every day, and yet I freely choose not to, in the same way God can honestly say that he wants everyone to come to repentance and yet not cause that to actually come about. God saying that he wants everyone to come to repentance is called his will of disposition;[6] in other words, it tells us something about the inner desires of God.

Marc Roby: We also read in Ezekiel 18:23 that God told the prophet to say to the people, “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?”

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. God would, in a sense, be pleased if everyone was saved. But in another sense, he would not because there are consequences that would follow from that decision, which make another course of action more desirable. As I just illustrated by the fact that I don’t drink chocolate milkshakes with lunch very often, we don’t always follow some of our inner desires, and neither does God, because all other things are not equal. What God actually does is called his decretive will[7] because whatever God decrees should happen, does happen.

Marc Roby: Now, in the case of you having the milkshake for lunch every day the undesirable result would be your putting on a bunch of weight you don’t want to carry. But what would the undesirable result be if all people came to repentance? And I should note that this would surely include, as true repentance always does, saving faith and would therefore mean that everyone would go to heaven. How could that be bad?

Dr. Spencer: In and of itself, having everyone go to heaven is not bad; in fact, it would be very good, which is why God says that he wants that. But, if he brought every single person to repentance, then he would not justly judge anyone. It must be, as much as we may not like the fact, that the world we actually live in is the one that best fulfills God’s primary purpose of making his own multifaceted glory manifest.

Marc Roby: In other words, God’s ultimate purpose in creating this universe is better served by not having every single person come to repentance and faith, even though, in one sense, such a result would be pleasing to him.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. Sin must be punished. And God chose to mercifully save some by punishing his Son in our place, but others he treats with perfect justice, which demands their eternal punishment.

Marc Roby: That begs a question though; why not simply create a universe with no sin in the first place? Then there wouldn’t be any need for the just punishment of anyone.

Dr. Spencer: That is a question that people have pondered for many years and even true Christians will give different answers. The most common answer by far in our day is that in order to create beings that are not mere puppets God had to endow us with what is called libertarian free will, which means that our decisions must not be directly caused by anything, even our own character. John Frame puts it this way; “This position assumes that there is a part of human nature that we might call the will, which is independent of every other aspect of our being, and which can, therefore, make a decision contrary to every motivation.”[8]

Marc Roby: That view sounds illogical to me. If we don’t make decisions on the basis of our own nature, our likes and dislikes, combined with other motives, then how on earth would we make any decision?

Dr. Spencer: I agree that it is illogical. And we will talk about this much more when we get to discussing biblical anthropology, in other words, the Bible’s view of man. But to stay on topic with God’s will I don’t want to go into deeper right now other than to point out that this would ascribe to man more freedom than God himself has! We will talk at length next time about the fact that God is constrained by his own nature; for example, he cannot lie. In other words, even God does not have libertarian free will. And yet, this view is common among those who believe that it is within every man’s power to choose whether or not to accept God’s offer of salvation in Jesus Christ.

Marc Roby: Of course, that view must surely be wrong because it is in opposition to the biblical doctrines of God’s decretive will and predestination.

Dr. Spencer: It most certainly is, and we will get to a deeper discussion of those doctrines in later podcasts. But for now, I want to stay on the topic of God’s will, and we have talked a lot about man’s will only to enable us to define some terms and develop an understanding based on the realm that we are more familiar with.

In any event, the idea that in order to be fully human men must have a libertarian free will is contradicted by the fact that we will not be able to sin in heaven, which Frame correctly calls “the consummate state of human existence”[9]. The existence of heaven proves that God can create a place where sin is impossible and the fact that heaven is held out to us as the ultimate and best possible place, the very home of God, proves that human nature will be at its highest and best form in heaven. Therefore, libertarian free will is clearly not necessary.

Marc Roby: We’re almost out of time, so let me summarize what we’ve discussed so far. We have seen that God’s will, like our own, takes into account the consequences of a given action, so that it can simultaneously be true that he would honestly like to see all people be saved, and yet for other reasons he does not, in fact, save all people. We have also seen that the idea that God didn’t create a sinless universe because he had to allow human beings libertarian free will in order to prevent our being mere puppets, is not an acceptable explanation because we will not be able to sin when we get to heaven.

Dr. Spencer: That’s a good summary. But you could also phrase the last part differently; we will not have the freedom to sin when we get to heaven.

Marc Roby: I think we’ll have to come to that statement next time and I look forward to that conversation. And, as always, we invite our listeners to email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org and we will respond.

 

[1] Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, unabridged, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2002, pg. 2617, definition 3a.

[2] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Eerdmans, 1997, Vol. I, pp 402-403, the definition I am giving here is what he says is generally used “In our day” (he wrote in the late 19th century) and what he says is the definition actually used in practice (“in the prosecution of the subject”) by theologians.

[3] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[4] Hodge, op. cit., Vol. I, pg. 403

[5] J. Edwards, A Careful and Strict Inquiry into the Modern Prevailing Notions of that Freedom of Will, which is supposed to be essential to moral agency, virtue and vice, reward and punishment, praise and blame, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Hendrickson Publishers, 2005, Vol. I. pg. 5

[6] e.g., see R.C. Sproul, Can I Know God’s Will?, Reformation Trust Publishing, 2010, pg. 20 (available for free in pdf form from https://www.wtsbooks.com/common/pdf_links/9781567691795.pdf)

[7] e.g., see John Frame, The Doctrine of God, P&R Publishing Company, 2002, pg. 531

[8] Ibid, pg. 138

[9] Ibid, pg. 141

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