The Providence of God

Session 8

Bethlehem Baptist Church

I’ll bring you up to date where we were last time and show you where we’re going to go tonight, Lord willing. We talked about the providence of God over weather and we talked about the providence of God over nations, and so on. And the implication has always lain, very close beneath the surface, that for him to do all of this ruling, it sounds like he has the right and the authority to also direct the wills of individual people. And what we saw was that that’s true. God does have the ultimate influence over the wills of people.

God influences and enables our willing as we ought. We are slaves to will sin without the influences of God’s sovereign grace. God’s sovereign grace overcomes our blindness and hardness and slavery to sin. And that’s where we stopped last week. Now, I’m going to show a few more texts on that last point: that God’s sovereign grace overcomes our blindness and hardness and slavery to sin; that’s how we got saved.

But before I do that, I want to tell you where we’re going to go tonight and put it in a context because it’s something I’ve been reading the last few days. We’re going to look at some verses that show God’s power to bring us out of darkness to light and change our will, so that we trust him, and then we’re going to look at the texts that talk about God’s will and desire for all people to be saved, like 1 Timothy 2:1–4. And then we’re going to ask the question, Does he have two wills? Does he will one thing and a different thing? Or is his will divided? And then we’re going to take a little survey of whether that’s possible or not biblically. Can you conceive of a divine mind that can will two things that exclude each other?

Divine Foreknowledge

Now the reason that’s a crucial question is because there’s a hot debate; there always has been, but it’s hot today. I’ve got this essay here that was sent to me that’s going to be printed probably this summer in the Christian Scholars’ Review. It’s called, “Can an Evangelical Christian Justifiably Deny God’s Exhaustive Knowledge of the Future?” by David Basinger of Roberts Wesleyan College. And of course, his answer is he can, and he does deny it. Whether it’s justifiable or not is open to question, but you need to know the kind of things that in evangelical schools and seminaries are being said today, to my absolute dismay.

Now, this is an essay intended to argue that you can believe the Bible and deny that God knows the future actions of free moral agents. In other words, God does not know, except with a fairly high degree of probability, what you’re going to do tonight. Because your will is free, and if it’s free, God not only can’t control it, he can’t know it, because if he knew it, it would imply some measure of control, because he always is right in what he knows, and therefore, you’d have to do what he knew you were going to do.

So, in order to keep you free, these people are denying that God knows what you’re going to do tonight. You can’t be free if God knows what you’re going to do tonight, except insofar as a smart and savvy person could know with high degree of probability what you’re going to do tonight because you’re human and you won’t stand out in the cold and if you haven’t had supper, you’d probably go home and eat. But he has a lot of knowledge, so he can predict pretty well, but they all say that ultimately, he can’t know. Now, the argument is that they see a portrait of God in the Bible that is that way. So here are some of his paragraphs:

Moreover, while God knew that the first humans might sin, and thus had options in mind, the overall picture of creation we find in Scripture is not that of a God who walked and talked in the garden with Adam and Eve, already knowing with certainty that he was in the presence of those who would fail to follow his rules. We see rather the picture of a God who created humanity hoping that the right choices would be made, and then deciding exactly what he would do in response to the decisions of his creatures. Also, we see in Scripture a God whose emotional responses are frequently those of a being who did not know ahead of time exactly what was to occur. God is portrayed, for instance, as one who at times experiences profound disappointment at the outcome of certain states of affairs that he initiated. The flood story, for instance, portrays God as one who regretted that he created humanity, given the dismal state of affairs at that point. In similar fashion, God regretted that he had made Saul king, given what occurred as a result, and the regret in such cases appears to stem from the fact that the outcome was not what God had intended, a state of mind that is very hard to reconcile with the claim that he always has known exactly what will occur.

In other words, if you see regret in God or statement of disappointment in a way a person is acting, it implies: he couldn’t have known what was coming because it’s irrational to say you can regret what you knew was going to happen when you planned that it happened.

Furthermore, we find in Scripture a God who is frequently disappointed, grieved by human decisions and behavior. God, for instance, was often very disappointed with the behavior of the Israelites and is disappointed with our failure to recognize his existence, power and glory. And the disappointment in these cases also appears to stem from the fact that we as humans often do not act as God had hoped we would act. On the other hand, God frequently responds joyfully to what occurs after creation. God said that it was good. David at times did that which pleased God. God, we are told, is pleased every time a lost soul is saved and such joy, it appears to us, is the result of the occurrence of states of affairs that God was not certain would actually come about.

So, in order for God to authentically rejoice in the salvation of a sinner, he can’t have known ahead of time that it would certainly come about, which means, of course, he couldn’t cause it to come about. That’s a given. They’re not even arguing at that level. My whole theology is rejected out of hand by these people. Then they’re going a step further and saying he can’t even know that a person is going to get saved because if he knew ahead of time, then his joy wouldn’t be as great or authentic.

And I find this a great dishonor to the Lord, to put it mildly, and unfaithful to Scripture. You need to know why these things are so important to me and why I think right where we are in redemptive history today and in American evangelicalism, we need to teach these things and we need to understand them and know why we believe what we believe. And you need to wrestle with them yourself. I know that some of you have relatives who debate you on this over Christmas holidays and other things, and it’s just a huge thing.

Who is God? What is he like? Does he know? Does he control? I got an email yesterday from a pastor in Illinois, deeply disturbed about a book published by a Bethel professor who holds this view and he said, “Do you know about this? Have you read this?” And I wrote back and said, “I share your concern.”

Effectual Call

Let’s take a few more verses on the issue of God’s sovereignly releasing us from the bondage of our blindness in sin and calling us to himself. I think God knows the future because he makes the future. He knows what he’s going to do, and so it’s not hard for me to figure out how you can know the free acts of moral agents because I believe God controls the free acts of moral agents. We looked at Titus last time, remember, where it said that God put it in his heart to go up to Corinth, and so he went of his own accord (2 Corinthians 8:16–17). That’s what I see in the Bible: God is able, in mysterious and wonderful ways, to see to it that his will is done by agents that do things of their own accord.

Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1 Corinthians 1:22–24)

Now, what this text illustrates is a very crucial understanding of what the call of God means in New Testament theology, New Testament thinking. The call of God in this verse right here is not what Billy Graham will do in the Metrodome when he comes and bids people to believe. That’s the external call of God that lands on believer and unbeliever, elect and non-elect, indiscriminately: we call people to believe. When I preach on Sunday morning, I don’t try to discern who the elect are and who they aren’t. I don’t know that, and it’s not my business to know that. My business is to summon everyone to faith, to call everyone to faith. And when you do that, some respond and some don’t ultimately.

“Jews demand signs.” Some people may say when they hear a call through hit, “Give me a sign.” “Greeks seek wisdom” — a kind of philosophical sophistication. They might ask for that when they hear the call. But we preach Christ crucified to those Jews who are asking for signs, and it turns out to be a stumbling block. To those Gentiles who are asking for that kind of wisdom, it turns out to be foolishness. But to those Jews and those Greeks who are called, he is the power of God and the wisdom of God. Which means that this call here is not what they heard and stumbled over. This call here is not what they heard and counted as foolishness. This call is what causes people to recognize: Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. Do you see how important that is?

There is a call that is deeper and more effectual — effective — than when I preach. It happens in and through preaching. It happens in and through your witnessing, but it’s not synonymous with the external invitation to come to Christ that’s regarded as foolishness when it’s heard by some. It’s regarded as a stumbling block when it’s heard by others.

There are two kinds of call: the kind that is simply heard by the external ear, processed and rejected; and the kind of call that is so powerful it creates what it calls for. And the analogy, of course, is a call like Jesus standing at the grave of Lazarus. And he says, “Lazarus, come forth,” and the call creates the life. An analogy from your own experience would be if someone is asleep and you say, “Wake up,” and they jump awake. Your call created what it asked for. Your call said, “Wake up,” and it was loud enough that it did what it said should be done. That’s what God has the authority to do with people who are dead in sin. That’s the way you and I got saved. At some point in our lives, God said, “John, wake up.” And my heart awoke to the glory of Christ. That’s what happened.

I don’t mean to create the impression that every conversion is a sudden awareness like that. I think that from our subjective, experiential standpoint, it is often a process, though I think there is a point that constitutes regeneration. There are no half-born people. You’re born, or you’re not born; you’re alive or you’re dead. I think a lot of people move from unbelief to belief and they cannot put their finger on the point of regeneration. And I don’t think we should fret about that. I don’t insist that everybody be able to give me a date and the time. The issue is: if you are now heartily trusting in Christ as Lord and Savior, this has happened to you. Whether you can point to when and how and where that happened, the evidence is: you’re alive. If somebody comes along and says to you, “I’m not sure I’m alive. Could you give me some evidence I’m alive?” I would not look for their birth certificate; I’d poke them with a needle. And when they say, “Ouch,” I’d say, “You’re alive.”

The same thing goes for Christians. I don’t ask for the decision card from the Billy Graham Crusade. That may have been where it happened. I asked him, “Are you alive to Christ? Do you love him? Is your intention today forward to follow him as Lord?” Then you’re alive; you’re born of God.” I don’t care when it happened.

God Opens the Heart

Here’s another illustration Matthew 16.

“But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.

Blessed — you’ve been blessed. You’ve been called. Flesh and blood just means ordinary human processes. So what Jesus seems to me to be saying in those verses is: the recognition of Christ as the Messiah, the Son of the living God in such a way that you’re drawn into discipleship with him, that is not anything human; that’s a divine work of God in heaven. Flesh and blood can’t do that. Flesh and blood can preach. Flesh and blood can give out tracts. Flesh and blood can teach, but only God can create the awareness, open the heart to the awareness. Here’s another illustration from Matthew.

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; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. (Matthew 11:25–28) Now, that’s an amazing statement. That must mean something like: the kind of knowledge I’m talking of here is the kind that in the Trinity, the Son through a deep love for his Father and union with his Father has of the Father — nobody has any knowledge of God like that, except anyone to whom the Son wills to do that: to reveal him. The reason I chose this is because what follows here is something that we need to feel is a natural outflow from the sovereignty of God and the revelation of himself to sinners. Do not draw the inference: Well, if God reveals himself to sinners, then we don’t need to do this or that. Notice what follows: After he says that nobody knows the Father unless the Son reveals him, he says, “Come to me.”

This is an appeal to our will; we must make a decision here. We don’t sit and do nothing. We must heed these imperatives.

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28–30)

There’s the condition (come) and there’s the promise (rest). So, at the experiential level of where we deal with people, we say to them, “Come, come. He is meek. He’s lowly. He gives rest. His yoke is easy.” We argue, we persuade, we plead, but all of that is prefaced by: you’re not going to know him unless he reveals himself to you. So, keep it together. Let’s keep it together in the Bible. Don’t let your human logic spin out implications of the sovereignty of God that are unbiblical. It’s more important to be biblical than to say what you think has to be in regard to a particular teaching here and there.

What God Wills and Grants

But let’s go to 1 Timothy 2:1–4 on this issue of the universal saving will of God. The number one obstacle or objection biblically to what I’ve been teaching you, that God has the right and the authority to govern your will — especially in the matter of salvation — is that it seems to imply that if he is the decisive willer in who gets saved, then he must not will for everybody to get saved; otherwise, everybody would get saved. That’s the main argument. And then the text behind that is a good observation and a very important objection to raise and important problem to solve.

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:1–4)

Now, you can add to this 2 Peter 3:9, which says something very similar:

The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.

And you can add to that two texts from Ezekiel:

Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live? (Ezekiel 18:23)

For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live. (Ezekiel 18:32)

Those are three pillar texts. I’m giving you the texts that are usually brought against my theology as the biggest problem. I don’t want to hide the biggest problem from you. So the question I must raise now if I’m going to teach as biblical is the: if God rules the world so completely, that he is the final and decisive cause of who believes and only some believe, then how can we say that he desires all men to be saved? Or they all would be saved, wouldn’t they, if he has that much authority and power and right? And you see that the solution that is offered to this usually is God does desire all men to be saved. And the reason all men are not saved is because they have free will, and God can’t override free will. Otherwise, he turns them into non-humans, robots. And so, his desire is frustrated and he is willing to live with that for the sake of love because he would rather have authentic personal relations with free people than inauthentic automatic relations with robots. That’s the argument.

Now, notice the wording here before I put up this other text. In trying to solve problems like this, it’s safest — I believe it honors the author of the particular book most — if you can stay close to the book rather than jumping way back to Genesis or jumping to Romans or jumping somewhere else and pulling in a verse and saying, “Well, this can’t mean this because it says in Matthew or Romans” or somewhere else. That’s legitimate if you’re careful to interpret in its context what each verse is saying, instead of just kind of pulling them out of context and smashing them together and making them shape each other.

Now, we all know that 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus are kind of a unit. They’re called the Pastoral Epistles. They have a vocabulary of their own. Now, notice to this here. Here we have him saying, “He desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” Now the text that I read for our devotion at the beginning is what I’m going to look at next. I put them together here.

And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth. (2 Timothy 2:24–25)

[He] desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:4)

This is the same phrase. This is very interesting. It appears a couple of times in the pastoral letters. Now, notice something. This is really surprising. This was so helpful to me years ago when I noticed I didn’t have to go outside of 1 and 2 Timothy to find that Paul says both things, and not just one thing. Here you have Paul saying, “God desires all men to be saved and to come to this knowledge of the truth.” And here you have him saying, “God may grant a person to repent and come to that knowledge of the truth.” One is the Arminian verse; one is the Calvinist verse. I just want you to see that if you want to play the pick-and-choose game, you can make a real strong case by just reading this verse and saying, “You, Pastor John, you’d be a good non-quarrelsome, kind, patient, gentle corrector of those in opposition, and God may or may not, but he may, give — sovereignly — repentance (change of mind) and lead people into knowledge of the truth.” That’s in God’s power.

Or I put this 1 Timothy 2:4 on the table and say, “How do people come to a knowledge of the truth? Well, God desires all people to come to a knowledge of the truth, so clearly, if they don’t come to a knowledge of the truth, it’s they’re decisive doing alone.” I could make an Arminian case for that from that verse. These are not two authors competing with each other.

Two Wills in God

It seems to me that by this text, and I’m going to show you a bunch of others, that we must think in terms of God as having two wills; that is, God has the capacity to will something in one sense that He doesn’t will in another sense.

If I let this stand (“God desires all men to be saved”), and I let this stand (“He gives some people repentance unto the knowledge of the truth”) then I’ve got to say that in the one sense, he’s willing for this person to be saved, and in another sense, he may not will him to be saved. It just seems to me if I’m going to let both of those sentences stand — God may grant them repentance leading to knowledge of the truth and God desires all men to come to a knowledge of the truth — on the face of it, you’re either going to reject one of those texts, you’re going to reinterpret one of those texts, or you’re going to let them stand and say God can do both. That’s my approach: God can do both. He desires all men to be saved in some sense, and he grants repentance and the knowledge of the truth in another sense.

I want to take you to some other passages of Scripture that get at this. So, what I’m going to do now is develop a few lines of evidence that God wills that some things come to pass that he disapproves of. So he has two wills, two ways of willing.

God’s Will and the Cross of Christ

So, here’s the first line of evidence — namely, the cross of Jesus. Did he will that Jesus be crucified, and did it take sin to bring it about?

Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know — this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. (Acts 2:22–23)

So, what he’s saying here is that Jesus was delivered up. Judas, and the disciples who ran away and didn’t get any help, and the soldiers who handed him over to Annas and Caiaphas, and Herod who handed him back over to Pilate after mocking him with his purple robe — all of that was delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God. I can’t imagine that in this room, anybody would say that the death of Jesus at the hands of wicked men was not the will of God.

Willed to Die

So, it was his will that Christ die. This is glorious: it’s our salvation that he sent Christ to die. Psalm 22 has in it all those prophecies — like, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and others that point to the death of Christ. It was detailed. The beatings, the thirty pieces of silver, the cry on the cross, bones not being broken was all detailed and planned out by God.

Surely he has borne our griefs
    and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
    smitten by God, and afflicted. . . .
Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;
    he has put him to grief. (Isaiah 53:4, 10

This is God’s doing. God was at work all the way through. The nail-driver was his Father. His Father killed him.

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. (Acts 4:27–28)

The Gentiles sinned, the peoples of Israel sinned, Herod sinned, Pontius Pilate sinned, but God willed it for our salvation. The cross is the essence of everything, and that’s why so many theological issues get solved at the cross. The cross is the place that is clearly the will of God, and it was the worst sin that’s ever been committed in the history of humankind. There is no greater sin than killing the Son of God — and that was what God planned.

Philosophical Stress Point

Therefore, he must have two ways of willing: He willed that evil come to pass in the wicked acts of Herod, Pilate, the soldiers, and the Jewish crowds crying, “Crucify him; crucify him.” He willed that it come to pass through those means. And he disapproves of people crying, “Crucify him; crucify him.” He disapproves of people driving nails into the hands of his Son. He disapproves of envy, which was driving the heart of Pilate. We don’t need to solve this entirely. Somehow, God wills that something be, which, in another way of willing, he disapproves of.

The prerequisites of moral accountability are not moral ability, but physical ability. Moral ability means that I’m good enough to do what I know I should do. Physical ability means that I would do it if I wanted to, but I may not want to because I’m so bad, I don’t want to. Now, if you’re so bad — if you’re so blind and so bad — you don’t want to do something, you’re still guilty for not doing it even if God has ultimately set things up so that it is that way because the prerequisite for moral accountability is simply, “I have to have the mental framework to know the right and I have to have the occasion to do it. But if I don’t want to do it — if I hate the right and thus can’t do it — I’m still responsible to do it.”

Now if you say, “I don’t see how God can rule the will and we still be accountable.” I would simply plead with you to live with that mystery. I do. To me, that is not a logical contradiction. It is a philosophical stress point on the basis of your assumptions. Here’s the philosophical assumption that you have to ask whether it’s true: in order to be held accountable by God, I (and not God) have to have the final and decisive cause in my willing. That’s an assumption; it’s a philosophical, metaphysical assumption. I believe it is unbiblical, and therefore, untrue. It’s not a logic issue.

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. (Romans 1:18–20)

Or I would paraphrase it: “So they are accountable.” What does the so refer to? The so refers back to the fact that they know what they need to know: they know his eternal power and deity. Then look at the following verse 21:

For although they knew God . . .

That’s the physical ability I’m talking about: they have eyes, they have a brain, they’re processing the data that’s out there about what God expects from them.

For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. (Romans 1:22)

So, they’re still accountable, even though their minds have become senseless; they became futile, they became dark, and therefore, they’re suppressing the truth. Paul says that their brains have perceived God and they know that he is powerful and divine, and therefore, they are without excuse. Since I see these teachings in Scripture that God has ultimate sway over the wills of moral beings, and the Bible clearly holds those moral beings accountable to do what’s right and to trust God, I would say, “OK, both of those are possible.” I am going to get my philosophical presuppositions from what I see there in Scripture, and I would take it and affirm it. Now that’s one line of evidence for the fact that God wills one thing that he disapproves in another sense: the cross of Jesus is the first line of evidence.

Moral Will and Sovereign Will

Here’s another one. The use of the phrase “will of God” — what does that mean in the Bible, the will of God? I’m going to show you two groups of texts that have two very different meanings. Here’s the first one:

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)

So, in that use of the term will of God, “the will of my Father” is something you could do, and if you do it, you enter heaven. If you don’t do it, you don’t enter heaven. So that’s something you might not do. This is a will of God that you can frustrate.

Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother. (Matthew 12:50)

Well, not everybody is his brother and sister and mother, so here’s a will of God you might not do. God says, “This is my will,” And I say, “No, thank you,” and I do an opposite thing. He said, So, there’s a will of God that you can not do. That’s not a sovereign will

And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever. (1 John 2:17)

Well, everybody doesn’t abide forever, so some people aren’t doing the will of God. So, there is a way to talk about the willing of God that doesn’t come to pass.

So as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God. (1 Peter 4:2)

Now, that’s the way most people use the will of God. They’ll ask, “What’s the will of God for my life?” or “What’s the will of God about abortion?” or “What’s the will of God about this or that?” In other words, What does God want to happen? What’s the moral thing? What’s the right thing to do? And then you either do it or don’t do it. As a Calvinist who believes that God has control of all things I can say that in the Bible, the phrase the will of God is something that can be rejected.”

Here’s another list of texts. Now, notice the difference of the meaning of the phrase will of God.

For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil. (1 Peter 3:17)

Now, what does that mean? That means it is better to do right, and if God wills that it happened be thrown in jail than not to do right. So, there the will of God is not something that you decide. That’s God’s decision about whether you get persecuted or not, whether you go to jail or not.

Let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good. (1 Peter 4:19) So, if you are being persecuted, then that’s God’s decision that you get persecuted. You don’t have any control.

Does disaster come to a city,
    unless the Lord has done it? (Amos 3:6)

So, here’s the will of God determining whether evil befalls the city or not. This is not something that I decide to happen or not. God’s deciding whether it happens.

    I am the Lord, and there is no other.
I form light and create darkness;
    I make well-being and create calamity;
    I am the Lord, who does all these things. (Isaiah 45:6–7)

But on taking leave of them [Paul] said, “I will return to you if God wills,” and he set sail from Ephesus. (Acts 18:21)

That means: God decides whether my boat sinks. God decides whether I get sick and die. God decides whether I’m coming back here or not. That’s a very different use of the word will than “if you do the will of God, you will abide forever. Paul’s going to do the will of God here when the boat goes down, whether he likes it or not. The boat sinks and he dies and doesn’t get to Ephesus. That’s the will of God, but it’s a very different use so the will of God. To the Corinthians he wrote,

I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills. (1 Corinthians 4:19)

Meaning this: “If God, ruling the circumstances in my life, gets me there.” Again this:

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)

Here again the will of God used very differently than the moral will of God. The names that theologians have put on these is the moral will or the sovereign will.

  • Sovereign will: he controls everything that comes to pass.
  • Moral will: he tells you what is right to do with your will.

And they can be opposite, I’m arguing. He can will that Christ die while commanding thou shalt not kill Messiah. The writer to the Hebrews says that his intention is to

leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity. (Hebrews 6:1)

But he says,

And this we will do if God permits. (Hebrews 6:3)

That’s an amazing one because you can hardly imagine God not permitting us to leave the elementary things behind and pressing on to maturity, but that’s what he says. And then we looked at this text in James before:

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit” — yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” (James 4:13–15)

What I’ve done now is try to show you two biblical uses of the phrase will of God. Make sure you get it here. In a text like 1 John 2:17, some do the will of God and some don’t. If you do the will of God, you abide forever. If you don’t do the will of God, you don’t abide forever. So, the will of God here is the moral standards of God, including faith in Jesus Christ.

Whereas when it says, “I will return to you if God wills,” that’s God’s sovereign control of the circumstances of my life and the wills of the people around me who might kill me or not. That’s very different from the moral standards.

This is my second line of evidence that the Bible uses the will of God in two different ways.

My other line of evidence is that God, for example, here in Exodus, says,

Go in to Pharaoh and say to him, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Let my people go, that they may serve me.’” (Exodus 8:1)

That’s the moral will of God. “Let them go Pharaoh, that’s my will. Let them go.” And Exodus 4:21 says,

And the Lord said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in your power. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go.

Now, this last text written after that, not before, and it is not a response to Pharaoh’s self-hardening. This is a prophecy: “I will do this. I’m going to say, ‘Let my people go.’ And I’m going to see to it that he doesn’t let them go.” It is a complex thing because as the chapters flow from chapter 4–14, there are seven times that God says he will harden Pharaoh’s heart and that Pharaoh will harden his own heart. And I spent about seven years working on this because, year after year, as I taught at Bethel College, trying to uphold the sovereignty of God, students would come back and they would point out problems. And so I studied and studied, and then I wrote this book, The Justification of God. So, if you want to go to see my most thorough, final effort, there’s a whole chapter on these chapters in Exodus, on the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, in The Justification of God. That’s my most complex and difficult book, but nobody reads it. But it’s probably the most important book that I’ve ever written and the one that may last the longest in the long run because it is the most thorough treatment of Romans 9 according to Richard Muller, who teaches at Calvin Seminary — the most thorough exegetical treatment of Romans 9 that he knows about in the history of the church because I spent so much time just working on a few little pieces of verses. That doesn’t prove anything about its truth or validity, but if you want to see the complexity, go to that chapter. You don’t have to read the whole book; just read the chapter on the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.

But I’ll let you decide what this word right here, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart,” means “so that he will not let my people go,” in relationship to “Let my people go.” I’m putting it there as a third line of evidence that in the Bible, the will of God is understood in two senses: one is moral and one is sovereign. The moral will of God is what we ought to do given what God says we ought to do, and the sovereign will of God is what’s going to happen under God’s control. And to me, the cross is the most compelling line of evidence, but these are all subordinate line of evidences.

The Very Nature of God

If you are not where I am on this yet, don’t think that you can’t be here in Bethlehem or you can’t ask questions or something like that, because these are difficult, difficult issues. And I’m very sympathetic with the process that you have to go through, often with tears, to make headway, one way or the other, through the biblical text. Though I speak forcefully, though I believe strongly, though would I lay down my life for this view — I really would; I think it’s that important — I do not insist that you have to be where I am on this at any particular time.

We’ll all find out the precise solution to these things when in the twinkling of an eye, when the trumpet sounds, and we all get our theology straightened out in the end. But I am not one who thinks it’s insignificant, and therefore, I will devote my life here at Bethlehem, as long as God enables me, to keep on teaching these things and commending them to you and urging you to seriously consider them and hopefully embrace them, because I think the very nature of God hangs on them, the nature of humility hangs on them, the nature of faith hangs on them, and the nature of our ministry hangs on them, missions hangs on it.