On Distinctions in God’s One Will

Theologians frequently make distinctions within the one will of God. Some of these distinctions are valid, but others are invalid; erring in attributing to God contradictory desires.

One valid distinction in God’s will is that between his revealed will and his hidden or secret will. This distinction merely states that there are some things which God has willed to reveal (in the Scriptures, but also in “sundry times and diverse manners” to His prophets in the Old Testament) and other things which God has willed to keep hidden/secret. This distinction, the validity of which is not typically a matter of debate among theologians, is seen in such passages as Deuteronomy 29:29 – “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.”

A commonly used, but in some ways erroneous, distinction in God’s will, however, is that of a decretive will and a preceptive will. By God’s actual will—His decretive will—all things come to pass as He has decreed. Nothing resists God’s will. The apostle Paul speaks of this in Ephesians 1:11 when he writes, “In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.” God’s so-called “preceptive will,” on the other hand, is misnamed. It refers to the precepts, the commands, of God and not his ultimate will. In these precepts God commands man to do certain things and not to do other things. But man regularly disobey’s God’s commands. Though God works all things according to the counsel of his own will, Man’s actions are often contrary to God’s commands. God, therefore, it must be said, does not will that man obey His commands, otherwise man would obey His commands.

To equate God’s commands with His will is to put his “preceptive will” in direct opposition to his decretive will. To give God both a decretive will and a “preceptive will” is to say God “wills event x to occur” and that “God does not will event x to occur.” This, being a contradiction, is opposed to God’s rational nature.

Gordon Clark aptly summarizes the situation:

I wish very frankly and pointedly to assert that if a man gets drunk and shoots his family, it was the will of God that he should do so. The Scriptures leave no room for doubt, as was made plain before, that it was God’s will for Herod, Pilate, and the Jews to crucify Christ. In Ephesians 1:11 Paul tells us that God works all things, not some things only, after the counsel of his own will. … The opponents may at this point claim that Calvinism introduces a self-contradiction into the will of God. Is not murder contrary to the will of God? He then can God will it? Very easily. The term will is ambiguous. The Ten Commandments are God’s preceptive will. They command men to do this and to refrain from that. They state what ought to be done; but they neither state nor cause what is done. God’s decretive will, however, as contrasted with his precepts, causes every event. It would be conducive to clarity if the term will were not applied to the precepts. Call the requirements of morality commands, precepts, or laws; and reserve the term will for the divine decree. These are two different things, and what looks like an opposition between them is not a self-contradiction. … When the term will is used loosely there is also a second distinction that must be made. One may speak of the secret will of God, and one may speak of the revealed will of God. … It was God’s secret will that Abraham should not sacrifice his son Isaac; but it was his revealed will (for a time), his command, that he should do so. Superficially this seems like a contradiction. But it is not. The statement of command, “Abraham, sacrifice Isaac,” does not contradict the statement, at that moment known only to God, “I have decreed that Abraham shall not sacrifice his son.” (Religion, Reason, and Revelation p. 222-223. Reproduced in God and Evil: Problem Solved)

The distinction between a decretive will and a preceptive will, like the similar distinction between an active will (what God actualizes, i.e. his decretive will) and a permissive will (what God allows to happen via some supposed power outside of his influence) is an invented device to attempt to solve the problem of evil. The problem of evil, however, is not solved by such a distinction. God is not “off the hook” of being responsible for sin because He passively let’s it happen. The idea of permission is not applicable to all-powerful God. The problem of evil is rather solved in the fact that God is sovereign. As Clark writes, “God created the good and the evil for his own glory, to bestow his love on the good and his wrath on the evil.” (See The Presbyterian Philosopher, p. 193-194.) The problem of evil being thus solved, there is no need for decretive/preceptive and active/passive distinctions in God’s will.

I am God, and there is none like Me, Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things that are not yet done, saying, “My counsel shall stand, and I will do all My pleasure.” – Isaiah 46:9-10