Distinguishing the Active and Passive Wills of God

from May 08, 2010 Category: R.C. Sproul

Joseph said about the treachery perpetrated by his brothers, “You meant it for evil; God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20). God’s good will was served through the bad will of Joseph’s brothers. This does not mean that since they were only doing the will of God the acts of the brothers were actually virtuous. All acts must be judged together with their intentions, and the actions of Joseph’s brothers were rightly judged by God to be evil. That God brings good out of evil only underscores the power and the excellence of His sovereign, decretive will.

We sometimes get at this same problem by distinguishing between God’s active will and His passive will. Again we face difficulties. When God is “passive,” He is, in a sense, actively passive. I do not mean to speak nonsense but merely to show that God is never totally passive. When He seems to be passive, He is actively choosing not to intercede directly.

Augustine addressed the problem this way: “Man sometimes with a good will wishes something which God does not will, as when a good son wishes his father to live, while God wishes him to die. Again it may happen that man with a bad will wishes what God wills righteously, as when a bad son wishes his father to die, and God also wills it …For the things which God rightly wills, He accomplishes by the evil wills of bad men.” 

Coram Deo: Can you remember when God used what was intended for evil to accomplish good in your life? Give Him thanks for those times. 

Psalm 31:3: “For You are my rock and my fortress; therefore, for Your name’s sake, lead me and guide me.”

Psalm 139:8–10: “If I ascend into heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there Your hand shall lead me, and Your right hand shall hold me.”