We begin a new week on the podcast going into a deep theological question. But hang with us. The question is this: If God has two wills — a will of decree and a will of desire — does God ever decree something to happen that he does not desire to happen? If so, wouldn’t he have a divided mind? Now, before you skip this episode, give us a chance to explain because it’s a sharp question from a listener named Ethan. “Pastor John, hello and thank you for taking my question. When reading through and discussing the themes at the outset of ‘Desiring God’ along with ‘Does God Desire All to be Saved?’, a perplexing theological question comes to mind. If God indeed has two wills, one of desire and one of decree (which are both biblically affirmed), how then does his will of decree ‘overrule’ in a sense his will of desire? If God’s sovereignty is the foundation of his happiness (as in chapter one of ‘Desiring God’), then it seems as if the ‘two wills’ idea is somewhat insufficient in addressing texts such as 1 Timothy 2:3–4. In other words, if ‘God’s sovereignty is the foundation of his happiness,’ how is it possible for his will of decree to act independent of his will of desire?”
Well, let me see if I can help the listeners get into the discussion here because this is probably landing on them with a “Huh?”
Ethan is referring to an article I wrote, “Are There Two Wills in God?”. What I was trying to do is show that sometimes the Bible treats the will of God as his absolute sovereign decree by which he plans everything and sees to it that everything he plans comes to pass. And sometimes the Bible treats the will of God as something that he commands, but which in fact does not always come to pass. Let me give an example.
Sovereign Over the Cross
In the Ten Commandments, it is clear that God commands, “You shall not murder.” So it’s right to say God’s will is that human beings not murder each other. Yet Acts 4:27–28 says, “Truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.”
“It’s not helpful to speak of God’s will of decree overruling his desire because that implies a conflict in God.”
Well, what’s that? They murdered Jesus, so in one sense, it was God’s will that his Son die at the hands of murderous, sinning people. God willed the murder of his Son. It’s written throughout the Old Testament. It’s written in the New Testament. The death of Jesus at the hand of sinning murderers was the will of God, even though the Ten Commandments say, “You shall not murder.”
When I speak of two wills in God, I’m simply describing what I find in Scripture. Of course, hundreds of theologians before me in the centuries of church history have seen the same thing. I’m simply using the language that has been developed to describe these two wills.
We can call them the will of command and the will of decree. That would be one way. Or we could call them the revealed will of God and the sovereign will of God. These terms simply refer to the fact that sometimes the phrase “will of God” refers to the sovereign plan of God that always comes to pass, and sometimes the phrase “will of God” refers to what he commands, which does not always come to pass.
God Grants Repentance
Now, Ethan is simply making explicit the fact that sometimes the Bible talks about God desiring something that, in fact, he does not decree to happen. For example, he refers to 1 Timothy 2:4. This is a very famous text. Paul says, “[God] desires all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” Yet in 2 Timothy Paul says, “[The Lord’s servant should be] correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will” (2 Timothy 2:25–26).
If we put those two texts together, 1 Timothy 2:4 and 2 Timothy 2:25, what we see is that, on the one hand, God desires all people to repent and come to a knowledge of the truth and be saved. On the other hand, he may or may not grant them to repent and come to a knowledge of the truth and be saved. Of course, this is not the only passage where we’re told that all human beings are dead and helpless in their trespasses and sins and only God can deliver them.
So Ethan asks two questions that he’s troubled about: (1) Does God’s will of decree overrule, in a sense, his will of desire? (2) If God’s sovereignty is the foundation of his happiness, how is it possible for his will of decree to act independent of his will of desire?
“God’s sovereign will, or his will of decree, incorporates — not overrules — his desires.”
Now, the answer to the first question is this. It’s not helpful to speak of God’s will of decree overruling his desire because that implies a conflict or tension in God. To be sure, the view that I am describing has been mocked as a kind of divine schizophrenia. I think it’s better to say that God’s sovereign will, or his will of decree, incorporates — not overrules but includes — his desires, even the ones that do not result in action.
He wills this just like he wills what does come to pass. We are always prone to drag God down to the level of our own experience since we can only imagine ourselves being continually frustrated in such a situation. But in the mysterious infiniteness of God’s complexity, that’s not the case. He’s not frustrated.
I’m not sure what Ethan’s second question means. Here it is again: “If God’s sovereignty is the foundation of his happiness, how is it possible for his will of decree to act independent of his will of desire?” My response is these two wills never are independent. In the one, unified, perfect counsel of God’s wisdom, it is wise to God.
It is wise that he both desire something to happen and will it not to happen. Both of those exist harmoniously, not independently. There is perfect integration and perfect harmony in God’s mysterious, perfect, infinitely complex counsel. There’s no idea here of independence of one will from the other.
Not from the Heart
Let me close with just an example because Scripture here is so much more important than my effort to put it together. I just want everyone to hear one more verse that, to me, is provocative and, pastorally, incredibly helpful. It’s Lamentations 3:32–33. Jeremiah is talking, and he’s describing the sufferings of Jerusalem under siege — horrible suffering. This is what he says: “Though he [the Lord] cause grief” — mark that, though the Lord cause grief — “he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love.” Here’s the amazing statement: “For he does not afflict from his heart or grieve the children of men.”
“It is wise for God to desire something to happen, and will it not to happen. Both exist harmoniously.”
In other words, God is causing the grief, and it is not coming from his heart. Very, very interesting. God decrees that certain things happen that in some sense are not from his heart. That is, it is not his desire, which is a picture of the same divine dynamics in 1 Timothy 2:4.
He desires all to be saved even though no one deserves to be saved. Yet in his freedom and wisdom, he does not decree for all to be saved. The sovereign will of God and the will of God’s command — the decree and the desire — are in perfect harmony in the high counsels of God. Neither is independent. Neither is overruled. This is just part of the mystery of what it means to be a sovereign and a loving God.