The Meaning of God’s Will (pt. 1)
(Continued from Can I Know God’s Will?)
The Biblical Meaning of the Will of God
We yearn for simple answers to difficult questions. We want clarity. We desire to cut through the entanglements to the heart of the question. Sometimes the answers are simple enough in themselves, but the process of finding them is laborious and confusing along the way. Sometimes the answers are simplistic, giving us temporary relief from the pressures and the burdens of confusing questions. However, there is a profound difference between the simple answer and the simplistic answer. The simple answer is correct; it accounts for all the data found in the complex problem. It is clear and can be easily grasped in its fullness. It abides, being able to stand the test of rigorous questioning.
The simplistic answer is a counterfeit. On the surface it appears to be the genuine article, but under closer scrutiny it yields its bogus flaws. The simplistic answer may account for some of the data but not all of it. It remains fuzzy. Worst of all, it does not abide; it fails the test of deeper questioning. It does not satisfy in the long haul.
One of the most excruciating questions of all theology is the question, Why did Adam fall? The simplistic answer, commonly heard, is that Adam fell by his own free will. Such an answer is satisfying until we probe the question more deeply. Suppose we ask, “How could a righteous creature created by a perfect Creator sin? How could Adam make an evil choice while possessing no prior inclination or disposition to evil? Was he simply deceived or coerced by Satan? If so, why would Adam then be blameworthy?” If he had been merely deceived, then the fault is all Satan’s. If he had been coerced, then it was not a free choice. If he sinned because he had a prior desire or inclination to sin, then we must ask, “What was the source of his evil desire? Did God put it there?” If so, then we cast a shadow on the integrity of the Creator.
Perhaps the simplest way to expose the weak character of the simplistic answer that Adam fell by his own free will is to ask our question another way. “Why did Adam exercise his own free will to sin?” Here it simply won’t do to answer, “Because he chose to.” This answer is a mere repetition of the question in a declarative form.
I would like to offer a simple answer to the difficult question of Adam’s fall, but I simply can’t. The only response I can give to the question is that I simply don’t know the answer.
Some readers will surely chasten me at this point by saying to themselves, “I know the answer! Adam fell because it was the will of God.”
But I immediately ask, “In what sense? Did God force Adam to fall and then punish him for doing what he had no power to avoid?” To ask such an impious question is to answer it. Certainly it must have been the “will of God” in some sense, but the crucial question remains, “In what sense?”
So, here we are, pressed squarely against a biting question that involves the whole matter of the will of God. We want to know how the will of God worked in Adam’s life; but more personally, we want to know how the will of God works in our own lives.
When questions are difficult and complex, it is a good rule to collect as much data about them as we possibly can. The more clues the detective has to work with, the easier the solving of the crime usually is (note the word usually). Sometimes the detective suffers from having too many clues, which only serve to compound the difficulty of the solution. The corporate executive faced with major decision-making responsibilities knows the importance of sufficient data and record keeping. His maxim may be: “If you have enough data, the decisions jump out at you.” Again we must add the qualifier usually. Sometimes the data is so complex that it jumps out like screaming banshees, defying our ability to sort through it all.
I emphasize the point of data, complexity, and simplicity because the biblical meaning of the will of God is a very complicated matter. To approach it simplistically is to invite disaster. At times, wrestling with the complexities of the biblical concept of the will of God can give us an Excedrin headache.
Yet ours is a holy quest, a pursuit that is worth a few headaches along the way. If we proceed in a simplistic way, we run the clear and present danger of changing the holy quest into an unholy presumption.
We note at the outset that the Bible speaks of the “will of God” in more than one way. This is the problem that complicates our quest and serves as a warning against simplistic solutions. In the New Testament there are two different Greek words, both of which can be, and have been, translated by the English word will. Now it would seem that all we need is to identify precisely the meanings of the two words and check out the Greek text every time we see the word will, and our problems will be solved.
Alas, it doesn’t work that way. The plot thickens when we discover that each of the two Greek words has several nuances of meaning. Simply checking the Greek text for word usage is not enough to solve our difficulty. But it helps. Let’s examine the two words briefly to see if they shed any light on our quest. The two Greek words are boule and thelema.
The Meaning of Boule
The term boule has its roots in an ancient verb which meant a “rational and conscious desire,” as opposed to thelema, meaning “an impulsive or unconscious desire.” The ancient subtle distinction was between rational desire and impulsive desire. As the Greek language developed, however, this distinction was softened, and eventually the words became used at times as synonyms, with authors switching from one to the other for purposes of stylistic change.
In the New Testament the use of boule usually refers to a plan based upon careful deliberation and is most often used with respect to the counsel of God. Boule frequently indicates God’s providential plan, which is predetermined and inflexible. Luke is fond of using it this way, as we read in the book of Acts: “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan [boule] and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23).
Here the resolute decree of God is in view, which no human action can set aside. God’s plan is impregnable; his “will” is unalterable.
The word thelema is rich in its diversity of meanings. It refers to what is agreeable, what is desired, what is intended, what is chosen, or what is commanded. Here we have the notions of consent, desire, purpose, resolution, and command. The force of the various meanings is determined by the context in which thelema appears.
This is part two of R.C. Sproul’s book How Can I Know God’s Will?. If you would like to study this topic further, here are a couple of products that may interest you: Knowing God’s Will CD Collection or Knowing God’s Will MP3 Collection.