The Meaning of God’s Will (pt. 4)
(Continued from The Meaning of God’s Will, Part 3)
God’s Will of Disposition
This aspect of the will of God refers to what is pleasing and agreeable to God. It expresses something of the attitude of God to his creatures. Some things are “well pleasing in his sight,” while other things are said to grieve him. He may allow (but not via moral permission) wicked things to transpire, but he is by no means pleased by them.
To illustrate how these differing aspects of the will of God come into play in biblical interpretation, let us examine the following verse which says that the Lord is “not willing that any should perish” (2 Peter 3:9, kjv). Which of the above-mentioned meanings of will fits this text? How is the meaning of the text changed by the application of the nuances?
Try first the decretive will. The verse would then mean, “God is not willing in a sovereign decretive sense that any should perish.” The implication would then be that nobody perishes—a proof text for universalism with its view that hell is utterly vacant of people.
The second option is that God is not willing in a preceptive way that any should perish. This would mean that God does not allow people to perish in the sense that he grants his moral permission. This obviously does not fit the context of the passage.
The third option makes sense. God is not willing in the sense that he is not inwardly disposed to, or delighted by, people’s perishing. Elsewhere Scripture teaches that God takes no delight in the death of the wicked. He may decree what he does not enjoy; that is, he may distribute justice to wicked offenders. He is pleased when justice is maintained and righteousness is honored, but takes no personal pleasure in the application of such punishment.
A human analogy may be seen in our law courts. A judge, in the interest of justice, may sentence a criminal to prison and at the same time inwardly grieve for the guilty man. His disposition may be for the man, but against the crime.
But you say, God is not merely a human judge, working under the constraints of the criminal justice system. God is sovereign—he can do what he pleases. If he is not pleased or willing that any should perish, why then does he not exercise his decretive will accordingly? How can there be a hiatus between God’s decretive will and his will of disposition?
All things being equal, God does desire that no one perishes. But all things are not equal. Sin is real. Sin violates God’s holiness and righteousness. God also is not willing that sin go unpunished. He desires as well that his holiness be vindicated. It is dangerous to speak of a conflict of interests or of a clash of desires within God. Yet in a certain sense we must. He wills the obedience of his creatures. He wills the well-being of his creatures. There is a symmetry of relationship ultimately between obedience and well-being. The obedient child will never perish. Those who obey God’s preceptive will enjoy the benefits of his will of disposition. When the preceptive will is violated, things are no longer equal. Now God requires punishment while not particularly enjoying the personal application of it.
But again—does this not beg the ultimate question? Where does the decretive will fit in? Could not God originally have decreed that no one would ever be able to sin, thus insuring an eternal harmony among all elements of his will: decretive, preceptive, and dispositional?
Often the answer to this question is superficial. Appeals are made to the free will of man, as if by magic man’s free will could explain the dilemma. We are told that the only way God could have created a universe guaranteed to be free from sin would be to make creatures without free will. It is then argued that these creatures would be nothing more than puppets and would lose their humanity if devoid of the power or ability to sin. If that is the case, then what does it suggest about the state of our existence in heaven? We are promised that when our redemption is complete, sin will be no more. We will still have an ability to choose, but our disposition will be so inclined toward righteousness that we will, in fact, never choose evil. If it is possible in heaven after redemption, why could it not have been possible before the Fall?
The Bible gives no clear answer to this thorny question. We are told that God created people who, for better or for worse, have the ability to sin. We also know from Scripture that there is no shadow of turning in the character of God and that all of his works are clothed in righteousness. That he chose to create man the way he did is mysterious; but we must assume, given the knowledge we have, that God’s plan was good. What conflict should arise among his commandments to us, his desire that we should obey him, and our failure to comply does not destroy his sovereignty.
We have already distinguished among the three types of the will of God: his decretive will, his preceptive will, and his will of disposition. Another distinction must be established between what is called God’s secret, or hidden, will and his revealed will. This secret will of God is subsumed under the decretive will because, for the most part, it remains undisclosed to us. There is a limit to the revelation God has made of himself. We know certain things about God’s decretive will that he has been pleased to set forth for our information in Holy Scripture. But we, as finite creatures, do not comprehend the total dimension of divine knowledge or the divine plan. As the Scriptures teach, the secret things belong to the Lord, but that which he has revealed belongs to us and to our “seed forever.”
Protestant theologians have made use of the distinction between the hidden God (Deus-Obsconditus) and the revealed God (Deus-Revelatus). This distinction is necessary, yet it is fraught with peril since some have found within it a conflict between two kinds of gods. A god who reveals his character to be one thing, but who is secrectly contrary to that revealed character, would be a supreme hypocrite. The distinction is valuable and indeed necessary when we realize that not all that can be known of God has, in fact, been revealed to us. There is a sense in which God remains hidden from us, insofar as he has not been pleased to reveal all there is to know about himself.
If we say that God has no secret will and proposes to do only what he commands and nothing more, then we would perceive God as one whose desires and plans are constantly thwarted by the harassment of human beings. Such a god would be impotent, and no god at all.
If we distinguish between the secret aspect of God and the revealed aspect of God, we must hold these as parts of the whole, not as contradictions. That is to say, what God has revealed about himself does not lie; it is trustworthy. Our knowledge is partial, but it is true as far as it goes. What belongs to the secret counsel of God does not contradict the character of God which has been revealed to us. The distinction of God’s revealed will and hidden will raises a practical problem: the question of whether or not it is possible for a Christian to be acting in harmony with God’s decretive (hidden) will and at the same time be working against his preceptive will.
In a certain sense, we must admit that such a possibility does exist. For example, it was in God’s decretive will and by his determinate counsel that Jesus Christ was condemned to die on the cross. The divine purpose, of course, was to secure the redemption of God’s people. But that purpose was hidden from the view of men who sat in judgment over Jesus. When Pontius Pilate delivered Jesus to be crucified, Pilate acted against the preceptive will of God but in harmony with the decretive will of God. Does this make nonsense of God’s preceptive will? God forbid. What it does is bear witness to the transcendent power of God to work his purposes sovereignly in spite of, and by means of, the evil acts of men.
Consider the story of Joseph whose brothers, out of jealousy and greed, sold their innocent brother into slavery in Egypt. At their reunion years later, and upon the confession of sin made by the brothers to Joseph, Joseph replied, “You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good.” Here is the inscrutable majesty of God’s providence. God made use of human evil by bringing to pass his purposes for Joseph and for the Jewish nation. Joseph’s brothers were guilty of willful and malicious sin. By directly violating the preceptive will of God, they sinned against their brother. Yet in their sin, God’s secret counsel was brought to pass, and God brought redemption through it.
However, what if Joseph’s brothers had been obedient? Joseph would not have been sold into slavery; he would not have been taken captive into Egypt; he would not have been sent to prison from which he was recalled to interpret a dream. What if Joseph had not become prime minister? What would have become the historical reason for the brothers’ settling in Egypt? There would have been no Jewish settlement in Egypt, no Moses, no exodus from Egypt, no law, no prophets, no Christ, no salvation.
Can we, therefore, conclude that the sins of Joseph’s brothers were, in fact, virtues in disguise? Not at all. Their sin was sin, a clear violation of the preceptive will of God, for which they were held responsible and judged to be guilty; but God brought good out of evil. This reflects neither a contradiction in God’s character nor a contradiction between his precepts and his decrees. Rather it calls attention to the transcendent power of his sovereignty.
Is it possible for us in this day and age to obey the preceptive will of God and yet at the same time be in conflict with the secret will of God? Of course, such a possibility exists. It may be the will of God, for example, that he use a foreign nation to chastise the United States for sinning against God. It may be in the plan of God to have the people of the United States brought under judgment through the aggressive invasion of the Soviet Union. In terms of God’s inscrutable will, he could sovereignly, for purposes of judgment, be “on the side of the Russians.” Yet at the same time, it would remain the duty of the civil magistrate of the American nation to resist the sinful transgression of our borders by a conquering nation.
We have a parallel in the history of Israel where God used the Babylonians as a rod to chastise his people Israel. In that situation it would have been perfectly proper for the civil magistrate of Israel to have resisted the wicked invasion of the Babylonians. In so doing, the Israelites would have been, in effect, resisting the decretive will of God. The book of Habakkuk wrestles with the severe problem of God using the evil inclinations of men to bring judgment upon his own people. This is not to suggest that God favored the Babylonians. He made it clear that judgment would also fall upon them, but he made use of their evil inclinations in order to bring about a corrective discipline to his own people.
This is part five 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.