This post is the second in a series of three, answering the question “Does God desire all to be saved?” For the first post, click here.
Does God Have Multiple Wills?
There are many words both in the original Hebrew and Greek text that are used to communicate God’s will. Some of these terms are better translated but often used interchangeably for similar concepts such as will, desire and wishes. For the sake of this conversation and our Systematic approach (that is, gathering what the entire Bible says about the subject) these linguistic differences are not important. However, as we better come to understand what is meant by “God’s will” we will come to a better understanding of this problem and an answer to the question.
No matter which camp they are in, theologians agree to use different terms to describe different aspects of God’s will. The Arminian/free will camp (Such as Roman Catholics, some Wesleyans, and some Lutherans) use the terms antecedent and consequent wills. The way this is generally defined is that God’s evaluation of some things as good is his antecedent will, while his actual choices among those various good things is his consequent will. Arminian theologians continue then by factoring libertarian freedom of man into the middle of these “two wills.” The argument goes something like this: God’s antecedent will is that it is good for all to be saved, however his consequent will is dependent on man’s libertarian freedom which explains why not all are saved.
There is a helpful distinction in this line of thinking, and that is the distinction that God does not bring all of his antecedent will to come to pass. However, this line of thinking is mistaken in its allowance for the libertarian freedom of man. There is again no room to go into a discussion of this matter, but it suffices to say that our previous discussion of the omnipotence of God does not allow him to be governed or dependent on man’s action.
Reformed theologians also have distinctions for various aspects of God’s will which they refer to as God’s preceptive will and God’s decretive will. God’s preceptive will is used to define and describe God’s values and rules (precepts), specifically as revealed to us in His Word. His decretive will focuses on his lordship and control, it cannot be opposed. Those things that fall under God’s decretive will certainly come to pass, they will always happen. There are similarities between these terms and the Arminian terms; God’s preceptive will includes room for man’s actions to act in accordance with God’s desires. The difference between these terms and that of the free will camp is that God’s decretive will does not allow room for man’s libertarian actions, whatever God decrees will certainly come to pass. Pastor and theologian R.C. Sproul puts it this way:
He sovereignly brings to pass whatever He decrees, while His permissive (preceptive) will leaves room for the moral actions of His creatures. – R.C. Sproul, The Invisible Hand
None of these statements are accurate unless there is biblical support for this view. Before we continue, it is then necessary to show God’s preceptive will and his decretive will through his Word. Below are verses that support God’s preceptive will; his desires, wishes and wants:
Bless the Lord, all his hosts,
his ministers, who do his will! – Psalm 103:21
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. – Matthew 7:21
Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. – Ephesians 5:17
For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; 4 that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, 5 not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; 6 that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. – 1 Thessalonians 4:3-6
(Cf. Pss. 5:4; 103:21; Matt. 12:50; John 4:34; 7:17; Rom. 12:2; 1 Thess. 4:3; 5:18; Heb. 13:21; 1 Peter 4:2)
Next we will see some examples of God’s will used in the decretive sense:
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. – Genesis 50:20
At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; 26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. –Matthew 11:25-26
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. – Isaiah 55:11
(Cf. Pss. 51:18; 115:3; Isa. 46:10; Jer. 49:20; 50:45; Dan. 4:17; Acts 2:23; Rom. 9:18-19; Eph 1:11; James 1:18; Rev. 4:11)
Through an examination of these passages (and others like them) we begin to see a biblical picture of God’s will. God desires good things in a general sense – such that all people would turn from idols, hold his name in reverence, remember the Sabbath, etc. But these desires are not always fulfilled.
Likewise, God wills very certain things that certainly come to pass. God willed the death of Christ at the hands of sinners, God willed that Joseph would be abandoned by his brothers and sold into slavery. God wills and decrees that his Word will not return void.
Pastor, author and theologian John Piper closes on this subject in a very helpful way:
In fact the New Testament saints seemed to live in the calm light of an overarching sovereignty of God concerning all the details of their lives and ministry. Paul expressed himself like this with regard to his travel plans. On taking leave of the saints in Ephesus he said, “I will return to you if God wills,” (Acts 18:21). To the Corinthians he wrote, “I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills” (1 Corinthians 4:19). And again, “I do not want to see you now just in passing; I hope to spend some time with you, if the Lord permits” (1 Corinthians 16:7).
This confidence that the details of life were in the control of God every day was rooted in numerous prophetic expressions of God’s unstoppable, unthwartable sovereign purpose. “Remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose‘” (Isaiah 46:9-10; cf. 43:13). “all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing; and he does according to his will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, ‘What doest thou?'” (Daniel 4:35). “I know that thou canst do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted” (Job 42:2). “Our God is in the heavens; he does whatever he pleases” (Psalm 115:3).
This means that the distinction between terms like “will of decree” and “will of command” or “sovereign will” and “moral will” is not an artificial distinction demanded by Calvinistic theology. The terms are an effort to describe the whole of biblical revelation. They are an effort to say Yes to all of the Bible and not silence any of it. They are a way to say Yes to the universal, saving will of 1 Timothy 2:4 and Yes to the individual unconditional election of Romans 9:6-23. – John Piper, Are There Two Wills in God?
In our next and final section, we will see how God’s sovereign desire for all to be saved and his individual and personal election of sinners are not at all in conflict, but actually in perfect harmony.