Compiled by James White
Wayne Grudem (1948-)
Another helpful distinction applied to different aspects of God's will is the distinction between God's secret will and his revealed will. Even in our own experience we know that we are able to will some things secretly and then only later make this will known to others. Sometimes we tell others before the thing that we have willed comes about, and at other times we do not reveal our secret will until the event we willed has happened.
Surely a distinction between aspects of God's will is evident in many passages of Scripture. According to Moses, "The secret things belong to the Lord our God; but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law" (Deut. 29:29). Those things that God has revealed are given for the purpose of obeying God's will: "that we may do all the words of this law." There were many other aspects of his plan, however, that he had not revealed to them: many details about future events, specific details of hardship or of blessing in their lives, and so forth. With regard to these matters, they were simply to trust him.
Because God's revealed will usually contains his commands or "precepts" for our moral conduct, God's revealed will is sometimes also called God's will of precept or will of command. This revealed will of God is God's declared will concerning what we should do or what God commands us to do.
On the other hand, God's secret will usually includes his hidden decrees by which he governs the universe and determines everything that will happen. He does not ordinarily reveal these decrees to us (except in prophecies of the future), so these decrees really are God's "secret" will. We find out what God has decreed when events actually happen. Because this secret will of God has to do with his decreeing of events in the world, this aspect of God's will is sometimes also called God's will of decree.
There are several instances where Scripture mentions God's revealed will. In the Lord's prayer the petition "Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven" (Matt. 6:10) is a prayer that people would obey God's revealed will, his commands, on earth just as they do in heaven (that is, fully and completely). This could not be a prayer that God's secret will (that is, his decrees for events that he has planned) would in fact be fulfilled, for what God has decreed in his secret will shall certainly come to pass. To ask God to bring about what he has already decreed to happen would simply be to pray, "May what is going to happen happen." That would be a h0llow prayer indeed, for it would not be asking for anything at all. Furthermore, since we do not know God's secret will regarding the future, the person praying a prayer for God's secret will to be done would never know for what he or she was praying. It would be a prayer without understandable content and without effect. Rather, the prayer "Your will be done" must be understood as an appeal for the revealed will of God to be followed on earth.
If the phrase is understood in this way, it provides a pattern for us to pray on the basis of God's commands in Scripture. In this sense, Jesus provides us with a guide for an exceedingly broad range of prayer requests. We are encouraged by Christ here to pray that people would obey God's laws, that they would follow his principles for life, that they would obey his commands to repent of sin and trust in Christ as Savior. To pray these things is to pray that God's will would be done on earth as it is in heaven.
A little later, Jesus says "Not every one who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven" (Matt. 7:21). Once again, the reference cannot be to God's secret will or will of decree (for all mankind follows this, even if unknowingly), but to God's revealed will, namely, the moral law of God that Christ's followers are to obey (cf. Matt. 12:50; probably also 18:14). When Paul commands the Ephesians to "understand what the will of the Lord is" (Eph. 5:17; cf. Rom. 2:18), he again is speaking of God's revealed will. So also is John when he says, "If we ask anything according to his will he hears us" (1 John 5:14).
It is probably best to put 1 Timothy 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9 in this category as well. Paul says that God "desires [or 'wills, wishes,' Gk. theleo] all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (I Tim. 2:4). Peter says that the Lord "is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance" (2 Peter 3:9). In neither of these verses can God's will be understood to be his secret will, his decree concerning what will certainly occur. This is because the New Testament is clear that there will be a final judgment and not all will be saved. It is best therefore to understand these references as speaking of God's revealed will, his commands for mankind to obey and his declaration to us of what is pleasing in his sight.
On the other hand, many passages speak of God's secret will. When James tells us to say "If the Lord wills, we shall live and we shall do this or that" (James 4:15), he cannot be talking about God's revealed will or will of precept, for with regard to many of our actions we know that it is according to God's command that we do one or another activity that we have planned. Rather, to trust in the secret will of God overcomes pride and expresses humble dependence on God's sovereign control over the events of our lives.
Another instance is found in Genesis 50:20. Joseph says to his brothers, "As for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today." Here God's revealed will to Joseph's brothers was that they should love him and not steal from him or sell him into slavery or make plans to murder him. But God's secret will was that in the disobedience of Joseph's brothers a greater good would be done when Joseph, having been sold into slavery into Egypt, gained authority over the land and was able to save his family.
When Paul says to the Corinthians, "I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills" (I Cor. 4:19), he is not speaking of God's revealed will, for Paul has already determined, in obedience to God and in fulfillment of his apostolic office, to come to visit the Corinthians. He is speaking rather or God's secret will, his hidden plan for the future, which is unknown to us and inappropriate for us to seek to pry into. In the same way we must understand the mention of God's will in Romans 9:18 ("He has mercy upon whomever he wills, and he hardens the heart of whomever he wills") and Acts 4:28 ("to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place") as references to God's secret will." Systematic Theology, 214-215
D.A. Carson (1946-)
"Some distinguish between God's revealed will and his determinative will; others, between his permissive will and his decretive will; still others, between his antecedent will and his consequent will. All of these paired 'wills' suffer from serious shortcomings. For example, although the greatest part of the divine will must surely remain 'hidden' (e.g. unknown to men), and although any increase in the knowledge of that will is due to revelation of that hidden but already operative will, nevertheless this model is inadequate as a total explanation of the relation between the divine will and reality, because in too many instances the hidden will appears to make mockery of the revealed will. Since the hidden will is always effective, it appears to be the actual will, except by what actually happens; and conversely, everything that happens is exactly what God really wills to happen...
Similarly, distinctions between permissive will and decretive will appear desperately artificial when applies to an omniscient and omnipotent being; for if this God 'permits' sin, it cannot be unknowingly and unwillingly, and therefore his 'permission' must be granted knowingly and willingly. Wherein then this permission differ from decree? Indeed, any combination of these 'wills' leads inexorably to curious situations. For example, Yahweh foresees that the people will go astray, and that his wrath will be kindled (Deut. 31.15-22). This surely suggests something more than consequent wrath - perhaps something more akin to willed wrath. In the same way, Micaiah can warn the king of impending doom and be assured that the king will fail to heed the warning: God decreed it so. This puts Micaiah in the invidious position of Cassandra. At the same time, we cannot do without some distinctions concerning the 'will(s)' of God. Both in the Old Testament and in the fourth Gospel, not to say elsewhere, God is sometimes presented as the one who seeks men out, loves a lost world, declares his yearning for their repentance, and the like. This 'will' of God is his disposition; it is not necessarily his decree. But precisely how both operate in one sovereign God is extremely difficult to understand." Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility, 214
Herman Bavinck (1854-1921)
“Over and over in history we see the will of God assert itself in two ways. God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son, yet he does not let it happen (Gen. 22). He wants Pharaoh to let his people Israel go, yet hardens his heart so that he does not do it (Exod. 4:21). He has the prophet tell Hezekiah that he will die; still he adds fifteen years to his life (Isa. 38:1, 5). He prohibits us from condemning the innocent, yet Jesus is delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God (Acts 2:23; 3:18; 4:28). God does not will sin; he is far from iniquity. He forbids it and punishes it severely, yet it exists and is subject to his rule (Exod. 4:21; Josh. 11:20; I Sam. 2:25; 2 Sam. 16:10; Acts 2:23; 4:28; Rom. 1:24, 26; 2 Thess. 2:11; etc.). He wills the salvation of all (Ezek. 18:23, 32; 33:11; I Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9), yet has mercy on whom he wills and hardens who he wills (Rom. 9:18).” 241, Dogmatics, vol. 2.
“Just as a father forbids a child to use a sharp knife, though he himself uses it without any ill results, so God forbids us rational creatures to commit the sin that he himself can and does us as a means of glorifying his name. Hence, God’s hidden will and his revealed will are not really incompatible, as the usual objection has it. For in the first place, God’s revealed (perceptive) will is not really his (ultimate) will but only the command he issues as the ruler for our conduct. In his perceptive will he does not say what he will do; it is not the rule for his conduct; it does not prescribe what God must do, but tells us what we must do. It is the rule for our conduct (Deut. 29:29). It is only in a metaphorical sense, therefore, that it is called the will of God.” 244
“God’s secret will and his revealed will are not diametrically opposed to each other, as though according to the former God willed sin, but according to the latter he did not; as though according to the former he does not will the salvation of all, but according to the latter he does. Also, according to his secret will God takes no pleasure in sin; it is never the object of his delight. He does not afflict any person for the pleasure of afflicting that person. Conversely, even according to his perceptive will God does not will the salvation of everyone individually. With a view to history no one can seriously entertain the notion that he does. Actually the “all” in I Timothy 2:4 is restricted to a larger or smaller circle by every interpreter. The two wills, the secret and the revealed, are so far from being opposed to each other that the revealed will is precisely the way in which the secret will is brought to realization. It is in the way of admonitions and warnings, prohibitions and threats, conditions and demands that God carries out his counsel, while God’s secret will only insures that human beings violating God’s commandment do not for a moment become independent of God, but in the very moment of violating it serve the counsel of God and become, however unwillingly, instruments of his glory. Not only the revealed will but also the secret will of God is holy, wise, and good, and will, precisely in the way of the law and of righteousness, become manifest as such in the end.
Finally, therefore, the distinction between the two needs to be maintained Facing us at this point is the problem of what ought to be and what is, idea and history, the moral and the actual, what ought to happen and what actually happens. Those who reject God’s revealed will fail to do justice to God’s holiness, the majesty of the moral law, the seriousness of sin. Those, on the other hand, who deny God’s secret will come into conflict with his omnipotence, wisdom, independence, and sovereignty. In both cases, however, there is a danger: either, in an attitude of shallow optimism, people close their eyes to reality and call all that is real rational; or, in an attitude of utter cynicism, they curse life on earth and despair of the world and human destiny. Theism, however, will not seek a solution by canceling one of the terms of the problem, but recognizes and maintains both: at all times, in history, it sees the lines of the rational and the real cross each other. It traces both to the sovereignty of God, viewing it with the high idea that also through the irrational and sinful it will fulfill its holy and wise counsel to the glory of his name. Certainly, it cannot be denied that we witness God’s sovereignty at its most brilliant when he magnifies his wisdom in human folly, his strength in human weakness, and his grace and righteousness in human sin.” 245
Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)
"§ 1. WHETHER God has decreed all things that ever came to pass or not, all that own the being; of a God own that he knows all things beforehand. Now, it is self-evident, that if he knows all things beforehand, he either doth approve of them, or he doth not approve of them; that is, he either is willing they should be, or he is not willing they should be. But to will that they should be, is to decree them.*
526§ 2. The Arminians ridicule the distinction between the secret and revealed will of God, or, more properly expressed, the distinction between the decree and law of God; because we say he may decree one thing, and command another. And so, they argue, we hold a contrariety in God, as if one will of His contradicted another. However, if they will call this a contradiction of wills, we know that there is such a thing; so that it is the greatest absurdity to dispute about it. We and they know it was God’s secret will, that Abraham should not sacrifice his son Isaac; but yet his command was, that he should do it. We know that God willed, that Pharaoh’s heart should be hardened; and yet that the hardness of his heart was sin. We know that God willed the Egyptians should hate God’s people: Psal. cv. 25. “He turned their heart to hate his people, and deal subtlety with his servants.” We know that it was God’s will, that Absalom should lie with David’s wives; 2 Sam. xii. 11. “Thus saith the Lord, I will raise up this evil against thee, out of thine own house; and I will take thy wives before thine eyes, and give them unto thy neighbour; and he shall lie with thy wives in the sight of this sun. For thou didst it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.” We know that God willed that Jeroboam and the ten tribes should rebel. The same may be said of the plunder of the Babylonians; and other instances 527might be given. The Scripture plainly tells us, that God wills to harden some men, Rom. ix. 18. That he willed that Christ should be killed by men, &c.
§ 3. It is most certain, that if there are any things so contingent, that there is an equal possibility of their being or not being, so that they may be, or they may not be; God foreknows from all eternity that they may be, and also that they may not be. All will grant that we need no revelation to teach us this. And furthermore, if God knows all things that are to come to pass, he also foreknows whether those contingent things are come to pass or no, at the same time that they are contingent, and that they may or may not come to pass. But what a contradiction is it to say, that God knows a thing will come to pass, and yet at the same time knows that it is contingent whether it will come to pass or no; that is, he certainly knows it will come to pass, and yet certainly knows it may not come to pass! What a contradiction is it to say, that God certainly foreknew that Judas would betray his Master, or Peter deny him, and yet certainly knew that it might be otherwise, or certain! v knew that he might be deceived! I suppose it will be acknowledged by all, that for God certainly to know a thing will be, and yet certainly to know that it may not be, is the same thing as certainly to know that he may he deceived. I suppose it will also be acknowledged, that certainly to know a thing, and also at the same time to know that we may be deceived in it, is the same thing as certainly to know it, and certainly to know that we are uncertain of it, or that we do not certainly know it; and that it is the same thing as certainly to know it, and not certainly to know it at the same time; which we leave to be considered, whether it be not a contradiction.
§ 4. The meaning of the word absolute, when used about the decrees, wants to be stated. It is commonly said, God decrees nothing upon a foresight of any thing in the creature; as this, they say, argues imperfection in God; and so it does, taken in the sense that they commonly intend it. But nobody, I believe, will deny but that God decrees many things that he would not have decreed, if he had not foreknown and foredetermined such and such other things. What we mean, we completely express thus That God decrees all things harmoniously, and in excellent order, one thing harmonizes with another, and there is such a relation between all the decrees, as makes the most excellent order. Thus God decrees rain in drought, because he decrees the earnest prayers of his people; or thus, he decrees the prayers of his people, because he decrees rain. I acknowledge, to say, God decrees a thing because, is an improper way of speaking; but not more improper than all our other ways of speaking about God. God decrees the latter event, because of the former, no more, than he decrees the former, because of the latter. But this is what we mean When God decrees to give the blessing of rain, he decrees the prayers of his people; and when he decrees the prayers of his people for rain, he very commonly decrees rain; and thereby there is harmony between these two decrees, of rain and the prayers of God’s people. Thus also, when he decrees diligence and industry, he decrees riches and prosperity; when he decrees prudence, he often decrees success; when he decrees striving, then he often decrees the obtaining the kingdom of heaven; when he decrees the preaching of the gospel, then he decrees the bringing home of souls to Christ; when he decrees good natural faculties, diligence, and good advantages then he decrees learning; when he decrees summer, then he decrees the growing of plants; when he decrees conformity to his Son, then he decrees calling; when he decrees calling, then he decrees justification; and when he decrees notification, then he decrees everlasting glory. Thus, all the decrees of God are harmonious; and this is all that can be said for or against absolute or conditional decrees. But this I say, it is as improper to make one decree a condition of another, as to make the other a condition of that: but there is a harmony between both.
§ 5. It cannot be any injustice in God to determine who is certainly to sin, and so certainly to be damned. For, if we suppose this impossibility, that God had not determined any thing, things would happen as fatally as they do now. For as to such an absolute contingency, which they attribute to man’s will, calling it the sovereignty of the will; if they mean, by this sovereignty of will, that a man can will as he wills, it is perfect nonsense, and the same as if they should spend abundance of time and pains, and be very hot, at proving, that a man can will when he doth will; that is, that it is possible for that to be, which is. But if they mean, that there is a perfect contingency in the will of man, that is, that it happens merely by chance that a man wills such a thing, and not another, it is an impossibility and contradiction, that a thing should be without any cause or reason, and when there was every way as much cause why it should not have been. Wherefore, seeing things do unavoidably go fatally and necessarily, what injustice is it in the Supreme Being, seeing it is a contradiction that it should be otherwise, to decree that they should be as they are!
§ 6. Contingency, as it is holden by some, is at the same time contradicted by themselves, if they hold foreknowledge. This is all that follows from an absolute, unconditional, irreversible decree, that it is impossible but that the things decreed should be. The same exactly follows from foreknowledge, that it is absolutely impossible but that the thing certainly foreknown should precisely come to pass.
If it will universally hold, that none can have absolutely perfect and complete happiness, at the same time that any thing is otherwise than he desires at that time it should be; so thus, if it be true, that he has not absolute, perfect, infinite, and all possible happiness now, who has not now all that he wills to have now; then God, if any thing is now otherwise than he wills to have it now, is not now absolutely, perfectly, and infinitely happy. If God is infinitely happy now, then every thing is now as God would have it to be now; if every thing, then those things that are contrary to his commands. If so, it is not ridiculous to say, that things which are contrary to God’s commands, are yet in a sense agreeable to his will? Again, let it be considered, whether it be not certainly true, that every one that can with infinite ease have a thing done, and yet will not have it done, wills it not; that is, whether or no he that wills not to have a thing done, properly wills not to have a thing done. For example, let the thing be this, that Judas should be faithful to his Lord; whether it be not true, that if God could with infinite ease have it done as he would, but would not have it done as he could, if he would, it be not proper to say, that God would not have it be, that Judas should be faithful to his Lord.
§ 7. They say, to what purpose are praying, and striving, and attending on means, if all was irreversibly determined by God before? But, to say that all was determined before these prayers and strivings, is a very wrong way of speaking, and begets those ideas in the mind, which correspond with no realities with respect to God. The decrees of our everlasting state were not before our prayers and strivings; for these are as much present with God from all eternity, as they are the moment they are present with us. They are present as part of his decrees, or rather as the same; and they did as really exist in eternity, with respect to God, as they exist in time, and as much at one time as another. Therefore, we can no more fairly argue, that these will be in vain, because God has foredetermined all things, than we can, that they would be in vain if they existed as soon as the decree, for so they do, inasmuch as they are a part of it.
§ 8. That we should say, that God has decreed every action of men, yea, every action that is sinful, and every circumstance of those actions; that be predetermines that they shall be in every respect as they afterwards are; that he determines that there shall be such actions, and just so sinful as they are; and yet that God does not decree the actions that are sinful, as sin, but decrees them as good, is really consistent. For we do not mean by decreeing an action as sinful, the same as decreeing an action so that it shall be sinful; but by decreeing an action us sinful, I mean decreeing it for the sake of the sinfulness of the action. God decrees that they shall be sinful, for the sake of the good that he causes to arise from the sinfulness thereof; whereas man decrees them for the sake of the evil that is in them.
§ 9. When a distinction is made between God’s revealed will and his secret will, or his will of command and decree, 528will is certainly in that distinction taken in two senses. His will of decree, is not his will in the same sense as his will of command is. Therefore, it is no difficulty at all to suppose, that the one may be otherwise than the other: his will in both senses is his inclination. But when we say he wills virtue, or loves virtue, or the happiness of his creature; thereby is intended, that virtue, or the creature’s happiness, absolutely and simply considered, is agreeable to the inclination of his nature. His will of decree is, his inclination to a thing, not as to that thing absolutely and simply, but with respect to the universality of things, that have been, are, or shall be. So God, though he hates a thing as it is simply, may incline to it with reference to the universality of things. Though he hates sin in itself, yet he may will to permit it, for the greater promotion of holiness in this universality, including all things, and at all times. So, though he has no inclination to a creature’s misery, considered absolutely, yet he may will it, for the greater promotion of happiness in this universality. God inclines to excellency, which is harmony, but yet he may incline to suffer that which is unharmonious in itself, for the promotion of universal harmony, or for the promoting of the harmony that there is in the universality, and making it shine the brighter. And thus it must needs be, and no hypothesis whatsoever will relieve a man, but that he must own these two wills of God. For all must own, that God sometimes wills not to hinder the breach of his own commands, because he does not in fact hinder it. He wills to permit sin, it is evident, because he does permit it. None will say that God himself does what he does not will to do. But you will say, God wills to permit sin, as he wills the creature should be left to his freedom; and if he should hinder it, he would offer violence to the nature of his own creature. I answer, this comes nevertheless to the very thing that I say. You say, God does not will sin absolutely; but rather than alter the law of nature and the nature of free agents, he wills it. He wills what is contrary to excellency in some particulars, for the sake of a more general excellency and order. So that this scheme of the Arminians does not help the matter." (Works, vol. 2, ch. 3)
Wilhelmus à Brakel (1635-1711)
"There is but one will of God; however, there is a distinction in the objects to which His will relates. Therefore in recognizing this distinction we differentiate between the will of His decree and the will of His command. We understand the will of His decree, also referred to as the will of His good pleasure or His secret will, to be God‟s purpose and good pleasure which He will execute, either by Himself or by the agency of others. “He doeth according to His will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth” (Dan 4:35); “Having predestinated us ... according to the good pleasure of His will ... who worketh all things after the counsel of His own will” (Eph 1:5,11); “Even so, Father: for so it seemed good in Thy sight” (Matt 11:26). This good pleasure God executes irresistibly, and thus He always accomplishes His will. “... our God is in the heavens: He hath done whatsoever He hath pleased” (Ps 115:3); “who hath resisted His will?” (Rom 9:19). This refers to the ultimate outcome of all things which will be according to God‟s decree which He either has not revealed at all to man or which He reveals only after a period of time. This will can frequently be perceived only in retrospect, or in special situations by way of prophecy when specific elements of this will are revealed in His Word. Such is true for instance in reference to prophecies as well as the distinctive marks whereby one may conclude his salvation, being assured of this by the veracity of the promises.
The will of God‟s command is also referred to as His preceptive will or His revealed will.138 This will has reference to the regulative principle of life as well as to the laws which God has made known and prescribed to man in order that his walk might be regulated accordingly. Inasmuch as God has decreed that it is His good pleasure to convey His will to man, this will could also be referred to as the will of His decree and good pleasure. As it is primarily descriptive of man‟s duty, however, it is associated with the will of God‟s command or His revealed will. Since God is holy, He has pleasure in, delights in, and approves of compliance with His precepts. He is displeased with and abhors deviation from His commandments. God commands obedience but also permits the violation of His commandments to demonstrate His justice in punishment and His mercy in being gracious. It is God‟s will to give to His elect His Holy Spirit who removes their heart of stone and causes them to walk and behave according to the commandments of the Lord. Herein God always infallibly and irresistibly accomplishes His purpose. Man, on the contrary, does not always conduct himself in a manner pleasing to God. The duty imposed by God is frequently not observed by man. God‟s purpose and good pleasure, however, will prosper since He commands that which is pleasing to Him and also because the decree of His good pleasure is accomplished. Thus the secret and the revealed will of God function side by side. “The secret things belong unto the Lord our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deut 29:29). Paul also refers to the will of His command. “... doing the will of God from the heart” (Eph 6:6); “... that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God” (Rom 12:2). This is also stated in Ps 143:10, where it reads, “Teach me to do Thy will.”
In making a distinction in the will of God, we are not suggesting that God has two wills. In God the act of the will is singular. The difference rather relates to the objects towards whom His will is exercised. Much less do we suggest that God has two wills which are incompatible, as if God with His revealed will would desire something and His secret will would be opposed. When we consider the will of God as being either secret or revealed, this distinction pertains to decidedly different matters, some of which are revealed whereas others are not. The secret and revealed will of God neither relate to one and the same matter, nor should they be viewed from the same perspective. Let me illustrate. God commanded Abraham to sacrifice and kill His son Isaac; nevertheless, it was not God‟s will that Isaac would die. This became evident from the outcome. There is a distinction here between the command and the result. God‟s command was His revealed or preceptive will, which was the basis for Abraham‟s behavior. He had to do everything which would contribute to the death of his son, which he also did. The result—that the death of Isaac would not take place by Abraham‟s activity—was another matter and belonged to the secret will of God‟s decree which Abraham perceived afterward when the voice of God prevented him. There should therefore be no concern as to what will should govern our behavior, as the Lord‟s secret will is solely His domain and against it we cannot sin. God will accomplish His good pleasure. Nevertheless, it is expressed in God‟s revealed will that we are to exercise confidence and subjection towards His secret will. It is His revealed will, however, which must be regulative for our behavior and it is in regard to the latter that we are guilty of sin." A Christians Reasonable Service, vol. 1, 114-115.
Francis Turretin (1623-1687)
"May the will be properly distinguished into the will of decree and of precept, good purpose (eudokias) and good pleasure (euarestias), signified, secret and revealed? We affirm.
I. Although the will in God is only one and most simple, by which he comprehends all things by a single and most simple act so that he sees and understands all things at one glance, yet because it is occupied differently about various objects, it thus happens that in our manner of conception, it may be apprehended as manifold (not in itself and intrinsically on the part of the act of willing, but extrinsically and objectively on the part of the things willed).
II. Hence have arisen various distinctions of the will of God. The first and principal distinction is that of the decretive and preceptive will. The former means that which God wills to do or permit himself; the latter what he wills that we should do. The former relates to the futurition and the event of things and is the rule of God’s external acts; the latter is concerned with precepts and promises and is the rule of our action. The former cannot be resisted and is always fulfilled: “Who hath resisted his will?” (Rom. 9:19). The latter is often violated by men: “How often would I have gathered you together, and ye would not (Mt. 23:37).
III. As there are various passages of Scripture in which the will of God is taken either for the decree (Rom. 9:19; Eph. 1:ll) or for the precept (Ps. 143:10; Rom. 12:2), so there are also some in which both wills of God are signified at the same time (i.e., Jn. 6:38, where Christ says, “I came down to do the will of him that sent me” [i.e., to fulfil the things decreed by God and to obey the command of the Father]). And when we say in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy will be done,” we ask that our lives may correspond to his precepts and his decrees be fulfilled.
IV. Although the precept falls also under the decree as to proposition, still it does not fall as to execution. Thus they may be properly distinguished from each other, so as the will of decree may be that which determines the event of things, but the will of precept that which prescribes to man his duty. Therefore God can (without a contradiction) will as to precept what he does not will as to decree inasmuch as he wills to prescribe something to man, but does not will to effect it (as he willed Pharaoh to release the people, but yet nilled their actual release).
V. Hence it happens that although these wills may be conceived by us as diverse (owing to the diversity of the objects), yet they are not contrary. For as was just said, they are not occupied about the same thing. Undoubtedly if God by the power of his decree would impel men to do what he has by his law prohibited, or if when attempting to obey the law he would by an opposite impediment recall them from obedience, he would will repugnancies and be himself opposed to his own will. But the decree of God does not contend with his command when he prescribes to man his bounden duty (for the performance of which, however, he does not will to give the strength because he wills indeed the thing as to the proposition of duty, but yet not as to the execution of the event).
VI. The preceptive will has a twofold object: sometimes affirmative (with respect to which it can also be called affirmative when the effecting of the thing is prescribed); sometimes negative (with respect to which it can itself also be called negative consisting in the prohibition of a thing). So the decretive will may have affirmative objects with respect to which it is called effectual and affirmative as well with respect to the end as to the principle; but others negative with respect to which the will ceasing can be called also negative (if not as to the principle at least as to the end) and then may be called permissive by which he determines not to hinder the creature from sinning. For although that volition may be positive as to the principle (inasmuch as he wills not to hinder), yet it is properly called negative as to the end (which is a non-hindering).
VII. The effective will cannot stand together with the negative preceptive. For God can never by himself will to effect what his law forbids as evil. Rather it best agrees with the affirmative preceptive will; for the same one who prescribes faith decrees to give it to the elect. The affirmative preceptive will can stand together with the negative decretive will, so that God may prescribe to the creature what nevertheless he does not will to effect in the creature. So he enjoins upon all the keeping of the law which, however, he does not effect in them. He enjoins faith in Christ upon the called which nevertheless he has decreed to withhold from many." Institutes, 3rd Topic, 15th Question
John Calvin (1509-1564)
"To answer the seventh is no concern of mine. Produce the passage, where I affirm that the will of God is very often contrary to the precept; for such a thing never came into my mind, even in a dream. But on the contrary I have faithfully expounded, amongst other things, how the will of God is simple and one, though between his secret counsel and his doctrine, some seeming discrepancy may appear. Whoever shall modestly and soberly submit to the omnipotent God, will easily understand, so far as the scanty measure of man’s intelligence may reach, how God, who forbids whoredom, and punished the adultery of David by the incest of Absalom, always wills one and the same thing, though in different ways. Therefore, lest the filth of your lies should cast the smallest stain on me, this may be briefly testified to the reader, that your allegations about me holding two contrary wills in God, are most wicked fictions of your own; since I everywhere teach, that the most perfect harmony subsists between God’s hidden counsel, and the outward word of his doctrine. I grant that Augustine mentions different wills; but these so harmonious with each other, that the last day will demonstrate how consistent he was in all his complicated modes of action.
This being settled, now fight with yourself to your heart’s content “about God forbidding what he wishes to be done, or enjoining what he does not wish, and thus commanding his will to be resisted.” In all this filth I recognize nothing belonging to me. On the contrary this is the sum of my doctrine. The will of God, which is expressed in the Law, clearly proves the rectitude is approved by him, and iniquity detested. And beyond all doubt, he would not denounce punishment against evildoers, if they pleased him. Still what he is not willing should be done, and forbids any one to do, he may, nevertheless, in his own ineffable counsel, determine shall be done for a different end. If you here retort on me, that God is inconsistent with himself; I shall ask in return, does it become you to prescribe the law to him of never transcending the range of your judgment?
Moses proclaims that God has his own secrets; while the Law reveals what it is useful for man to know. Will you suppose that nothing is lawful for God, that is not perfectly plain to you? In the book of Job after the depth of his counsel is celebrated, which swallows up all human comprehension, this clause is at length added, “Lo! these are the extremities of his ways, and how little is heard of him!” You will allow no counsel to God, that is not brought under your eye. Now you are either more than blind, or you see that when God in his word forbids you adultery, he is unwilling you should be an adulterer; and that yet in the adulteries which he condemns, he exercises his just judgments; which undoubtedly he could not do, unless both his knowledge and his will were concerned. If you would have the thing stated more briefly; he does will that adultery should not be committed, in so far as it is pollution, a violation of sacred order, in fine a transgression of the law; in so far as he employs adulteries, and other enormities in the execution of his vengeance, he certainly does not unwillingly discharge the duty of a judge. For though we will not praise the Chaldeans and Assyrians for cruelly wading through scenes of horrid slaughter yea though God himself declares, that he would be avenged on them; yet again he elsewhere informs us, that sacrifices were in this way prepared for him. Will you deny that God’s will is concerned in that which he dignifies with the honorable name of sacrifice. ( Isaiah 29 and 34. cap.; Jeremiah 46; Ezekiel 39.)
At length then awake, and acknowledge that when men are driven headlong by depraved appetite, God in secret and ineffable ways manages his own judgments. You think the quibble subtle, when you ask; in prohibiting adultery, does God will that all should commit it, or only a part? For if I answer a part, you infer that God is inconsistent with himself. Now you have a definite answer, that God demands chastity of all, because he loves it in all; yet experience itself, though I were silent, shows different ways of willing. For if his will were equally efficacious that all should be chaste, he would without doubt render all chaste. Now as chastity is his peculiar gift, it is easy to infer that he wills differently what he enjoins in the word, from what he realizes by the Spirit of regeneration. Nor on this principle, is there any reason that your shameless tongue should upbraid God with hypocrisy; as if he had honey in his mouth, and gall in his heart. For God pretend nothing either in commanding or forbidding; but sincerely reveals his nature. And in that secret counsel by which he guides all the actions of men, you will find nothing contrary to his justice. Whoredom displeases God the author of chastity; yet the same God determined to punish David by the incestuous outrages of Absalom. Human blood he forbids to be shed, because as he follows his image with his love, so he guards it with his protection; and yet out of impious nations, he raised up executioners of the sons of Eli, because he determined to slay them. Such is the express doctrine of the sacred history. If your blindness is a hindrance to you, yet all who have eyes perceive, that it is quite consistent for God to abhor whoredom and slaughter, it, so far as they are sins, or (what comes to the same thing,) to abhor the transgression of his law in whoredom and slaughter, and yet to execute his own judgments, in taking just vengeance on the sins of men, by means of slaughter, and wickedness of every kind.
However dexterous you may fancy your query if there is any secret will of God, how did I happen to find it out; I shall have no difficulty in answering it, provided I may be allowed to follow the Holy Spirit as my master. For if Paul testifies, that God dwells in light inaccessible; if the same apostle with good reason exclaims that his ways are incomprehensible, why may I not be allowed to admire his secret will though it be concealed from us? The wisdom of God is extolled in the book of Job, with numerous and splendid eulogiums, that mortals may learn not to measure right wisdom by their own apprehensions. Will you then ridicule all discourse about what is concealed? Or will you upbraid David with speaking foolishly of the judgments of God, when he acknowledges them to be a great deep? From all the prophets and apostles, I learn that the divine counsel is incomprehensible. I embrace what they declare with no hesitating faith. Why should this modesty be imputed to me as a fault?
And think not to escape by saying, that I refer to examples that are not applicable; for surely I have the very same subject in hand as Paul had, when he exclaims concerning the depth of the riches of wisdom — the incomprehensible judgments, the unsearchable ways of God, in secret election or reprobation; — and yet ceases not openly to assert, that God follows whom he pleases with mercy, and dooms the rest to destruction.
In fine, give up all fondness for your puerile dilemma, for the Scriptures assure me of the secret will of God; asserting what I have learned from them I do speak of an ascertained truth; but because I do not reach so great a height, I reverently adore with fear and trembling what is too sublime for the angels themselves. Often therefore in my writings I admonish my readers, that on this subject nothing is better than a learned ignorance; for those rave like madmen who arrogate to know more about it than is fit.
You now perceive how confident I am about that will of God, of which the Scriptures are the witnesses; still it is secret, inasmuch as, why God wills this to come to pass, or that; and how he wills it, even the intellects of angels cannot comprehend; while your pride so far infatuates you and your fellows, as to tempt you to annihilate whatever eludes or transcends your capacity.
Your objections about contrarieties are now sufficiently removed . You attack me indeed with this scurrility; if I am an imitator of God, you deny that any faith is due to a double-tongued, a double-hearted, and a doublewilled man; but it is too foolish to annoy me. By-and-bye you shall know what it is to imitate the Devil, by ascending on high to become like the Highest. That which alone tortures me, is the insane blasphemies wherewith you defile the sacred majesty of God, of which, however, he will himself be the avenger.
As the will of God, which he has delivered in his law, is good, I grant that whatever is contrary to it is evil: but when you babble about the contrariety of that hidden will, by which God distinguishes between the vessels of mercy and the vessels of wrath, and freely uses both according to his pleasure, you exhale a vanity as detestable as it is false, from the foetid ditch of your ignorance. I confess Christ speaks of his open will, when he says, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often would I have gathered thy children together, but you would not;” he casts the same reproach on the Jews, as Moses did in his song." Calvin on Secret Providence, article 7th.
Martin Luther (1483-1546)
"We must discuss God, or the will of God, preached, revealed, offered to us, and worshipped by us, in one way, and God not preached, nor revealed, nor offered to us, nor worshipped by us, in another way...
Now, God in his own nature and majesty is to be left alone; in this regard, we have nothing to do with him, nor does he wish us to deal with him. We have to deal with him as clothed and displayed in his word, by which he presents himself to us. That is his glory and beauty, in which the Psalmist proclaims him to be clothed (Ps. 21:5)...God preached works to the end that sin and death may be taken away, and that we may be saved. ‘He sent his word and healed them’ (Ps. 107:20). But God hidden in majesty neither deplores nor takes away death, but works life and death, and all in all; nor has he set bounds to himself by his word, but has kept himself free over all things.
...The Diatribe [against which this book was written]...makes no distinction between God preached and God hidden, that is, between the Word of God and God himself. God does many things which he does not show us in his word, and he wills many things which he does not in his word show us that he wills. Thus, he does not will the death of a sinner – that is, in his word; but he wills it by his inscrutable will. At present, however, we must keep in view his word and leave alone his inscrutable will; for it is by his word, and not by his inscrutable will, that we must be guided. In any case, who can direct himself according to a will that is inscrutable and incomprehensible?...
So it is right to say, “If God does not desire our death, it must be laid to the charge of our own will if we perish”; this, I repeat, is right if you spoke of God preached. For he desires that all men should be saved, in that he comes to all by the word of salvation, and the fault is in the will which does not receive him, as he says in Matt. 23:37...But why the majesty does not remove or change this fault of will in every man (for it is not in the power of man to do it), or why he lays this fault to the charge of the will, when man cannot avoid it...as Paul says in Rom. 11: “Who art thou that repliest against God?” The Bondage of the Will, on Ezek. 18:23