How many wills does God have?
When we talk about the will of God, it gets complicated because the New Testament uses two different Greek words that are translated by the English word “will.” It would be nice if you could know which will of God a text is speaking about based on which Greek word it uses. Unfortunately, those two words are often used interchangeably, so that doesn’t help.
From the context of Scripture, however, we do distinguish among several words with respect to the will of God. For example, we speak of His sovereign, efficacious will. We define this will as that which comes to pass by necessity from the very force of God exercising it. We also refer to this as the decretive will because whatever God decrees necessarily, by the force of His sovereignty, comes to pass.
There is also the preceptive will of God. This is where God reveals to us the commandments that He wants us to obey. However, God’s command that we love Him with all of our hearts is not a sovereign, efficacious act of His will. Otherwise, we would automatically love Him with all of our hearts. That is to say, we can resist and disobey him. In fact, we disobey the preceptive will all the time.
Finally, we talk about the will of desire or God’s effective will, which involves His disposition. He takes no delight in the death of the wicked, in the sense of a gleeful enjoyment of their negative outcome. Nevertheless, He still decrees or commands that these people be punished. There are other nuances of the will of God that we can find in the New Testament, but those are the three most significant and most frequently used.
A passage you hear all the time in discussions like this is: “God is not willing that any should perish” (2 Peter 3:9). What does that mean? If it’s referring to His sovereign, efficacious will, then no one would perish or at least no one in the category of “any” as Peter has described. When I hear that passage, I first ask: “Any what? Any grasshoppers, any orangutans, any human beings?” To find the answer to that question, you need to look at the antecedent of the word, and it’s the word “us.” God is not willing that any of “us” should perish. If that’s the case, then I would assume that 2 Peter 3:9 is referring to the sovereign will of God. If the text means “not any person should perish,” it proves too much. It would then mean that God is sovereignly decreeing that nobody perishes, and if that were the case, no one would perish.
So, it gets very complicated when you come to a text that speaks of God’s will because it has to be interpreted by its immediate context as well as the rest of Scripture before we can land definitively on which particular view of God’s will the text is referencing.
This is a transcript of R.C. Sproul’s answer given during our 2015 Pilgrims in Progress Regional Conference, and has been lightly edited for readability. To ask Ligonier a biblical or theological question, just visit Ask.Ligonier.org or message us on Facebook or Twitter.