Understanding the Wills of God

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So here we are at Ephesians 1:1–2. “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Now, we won’t talk about every single word — though that would be useful, and over time, as you read it year after year, you should. But I’ll pick out the ones that I think might be most provocative, illuminating, and helpful to talk about.

By the Will of God

Paul, an apostle, we could linger a long time there — an authoritative spokesman for another authority. Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, choosing him. We’ll talk more about that. But he is one of these apostles who speaks with authority for the risen Christ “by the will of God.” And the question I want to pose for you is: What does that mean? What does the will of God mean? And there are two possible meanings, at least, for what the phrase “will of God” means.

And here they are. Does it mean God’s sovereign decree that always comes to pass? And I’ll call that “will of decree,” and I’m not the first to call it that. Or does it mean God’s command to do what is morally right, like “Thou shalt not kill” is his will? We’ll call that “will of command.” And give you a verse to show these two meanings.

Will of Decree

Isaiah 46:9–10: “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.’” And you could replace counsel with will here. “My will will stand, I will accomplish all my will.”

These are different words for the divine purpose, and so we know there is such a thing as the divine will that will happen because that’s what he says and it’s all over the Bible. I have a page here that I won’t bother reading with, I think, about six examples of both uses of these kinds of will. So the will of decree is God’s sovereign purpose or counsel or will that always comes to pass. It never fails. So his will is that purpose which he sees to it comes about.

Will of Command

Then the term is used another way, namely for what is commanded as morally right. For example, here in 1 Thessalonians 5:18, “In everything give thanks” — there’s a command — “for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.” Well, do they always do that? Do you always do that? No, you don’t. You disobey that regularly, probably today. “In everything give thanks.” You didn’t.

So, it’s not God’s will of decree that today you would give thanks in everything. It’s just his will because it’s morally right.

Now, this kind of thing is absolutely essential to see. It’s that illustration of the language convention that you know what a word or a phrase means from its usage, not just from its wording or content. So there are these two.

The reason I’m lingering over this is that I think if you saw this, got a handle on this, it would help you with dozens of issues in the Bible. Just dozens. You’d be reading along and you’d wonder sometimes was it God’s will or is it not God’s will?

And if you have some vocabulary to help you distinguish between will of decree (what always happens) and will of command (what he commands to happen, which may not happen), then you have some categories that help make sense of lots of places in the Bible.

Paul, an Apostle by the Will of God

My question is, which is meant here? “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God” (Ephesians 1:1). Does he mean, “God commanded me to be an apostle and I obeyed”? Or does he mean, “God purposed and willed that I would be an apostle and thus I became one because there was no other way that this was going to happen because God purposed it from a long time ago”? Which is it?

Pauline Perspective

Now to answer that, you can read the rest of Ephesians and look for clues. I kind of short-circuited, and I wanted to stay in Paul, in stories about Paul and in Paul. But for example, here in Galatians 1:15, “When he who had set me” — this is Paul talking—”when [God] who had set me apart before I was born.” Whoa, that’s big.

“He who had set me apart before I was born called me by his grace,” that’s the Damascus road, knocked him off his horse, “was pleased to reveal his son to me,” big, bright light, blinded him for three days, “in order that I might preach among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone but” — and he goes on (Galatians 1:15–16).

Now to me, this right here settles the issue. God willed for Paul to be an apostle before Paul was born. He didn’t command him to be an apostle before he was born. He wasn’t there. He just decided, “I’m going to choose a murderer. I’m going to choose a murderer and a persecutor because I got purposes in that.”

Which Paul spells out in 1 Timothy 2:1, why God did it this way. Big reason. For your sake, he chose him before he was born. He let him become a murderer and a persecutor of the church so that you, sitting in a counseling room with the worst of sinners, would be able to give them hope. That’s what Paul says. He had mercy on me the foremost so that you would take heart that nobody is beyond salvation. Isn’t God amazing? That’s why God does things. But that’s subordinate to my point here.

The point here is this text says the answer to the question “What is the meaning of the will of God?” right here in Ephesians 1 is the will of decree.

Lukan Perspective

Let’s go outside Paul and let Luke, who testifies to this conversion, have his say. “The Lord said to Ananias” — remember God goes to Ananias and tells him to go pray for Paul that he would see because he’s blind after being converted or on his way to being converted. “But the Lord said to Ananias, go for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer” (Acts 9:15–16).

This is just a sovereign Christ saying, “I’ve taken him, he’s mine. Go, I’ve got a purpose for you in this. This is my apostle, and I’m going to use him, and he’s going to suffer very much. And if he has any objections to this, I will overcome them.” Which he did.

So back to Ephesians 1. “Will of God” as not just command to Paul but God’s sovereign decree. This distinction is so important because if you don’t have a distinction between will of command and will of decree, then your talk about the will of God will almost endlessly be confused.

The Distinction Matters

Because here’s an implication. I don’t know if you’re thinking this way, if your mind is whirling. So he can command what he doesn’t decree. That’s an implication. God said to Pilate in the Bible, “Thou shalt not murder.” And Pilate murdered Jesus, and Acts 4:27 says God planned it that way. Pilate, Herod, the Gentiles, the peoples of Israel gathered together “to do what your hand and your plan had predestined to take place” — namely murder of the Son of God (Acts 4:28).

So God can will what he commands should not be. Got that category? That is a category without which lots of the Bible will make no sense. So if you don’t have that category coming into this room, I hope you’ll have it going out.

We’ll say it again. God can and often does command that things not be done, which he wills to be done. “Thou shalt not kill” is one of the easiest ones to talk about because “Thou shalt not kill” is in the Bible. It applies to everybody. And Herod, Pilate, the soldiers, the crowds that cry, “Crucify him, crucify him” — all of them disobeyed that command and did the will of God.

They broke the will of God by doing the will of God. See? You got to have categories or you can’t make sense out of the Bible.


New question. Ephesians 1:2: “Grace to you,” he says to the Ephesians now, “and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.: Grace to you and peace. Grace to you. Ephesians 6:24, at the end of the book, “Grace be with you.” Here, notice there’s no verb “be,” and here there’s no verb either, but they put it in just because it sounds better.

So he could have said here, “Grace be with you.” And he could have said here “Grace with you.” It’s the same structure — only it’s with. And my question to you is does that have any meaning? Why? At the front end of the book he says, “Grace to you.” And at the back end of the book in the last verse, he says, “Grace be with you, with all of you.” And what makes that question, I mean that makes me such a small thing. Why is he even asking that?

Pauline Pattern

The reason I’m asking it is that exact distinction holds true in every single letter of the apostle Paul, which cannot be an accident, right? At the front of every letter, there is some form of grace to you. And in the last few verses of every single letter, there’s some form of grace with you. Why? Why not grace to you? Why not grace with you at the front, grace to you at the end? Got to mean something. I see the uniform pattern and all the letters, I say, “Okay, I want this. I want onto this,” because I’m a preacher and I’m going to say things like that. I want them to mean something. I want them to mean what you mean.

And I’ve never read any commentary on this. If you know somebody who’s written something insightful and authoritative about that, tell me because I haven’t. And I’m not a well-read person because I’m a slow reader and don’t read a lot. I just think a lot.

Grace to You and Be with You

Here’s my idea and I propose it. I can’t prove it. I’m going to make a suggestion. Since at the front of every letter he says, “Grace to you,” and he knows that he’s an inspired person. And in Ephesians 3:4, “By reading, you have access.”

So if this letter is being read to the church, so the church is gathered now in Ephesus, somebody says, “We have a letter from the apostle. Everybody come. Everybody come.” And they have an appointed reader or maybe several appointed readers for one for a chapter, and they read it and it starts, “Grace to you,” as he starts speaking to them. Meaning when an apostle speaks with divine authority, grace comes through his words to the people, which is true. This is profoundly true. When the scriptures are read and faithfully preached, grace is coming. It’s, “Grace is coming.”

And then half an hour later or so, they’re drawing to a close. He knows that people are going to maybe have a meal, going to have the Lord’s Supper. They’re going to go out into the world, a very hostile world, a difficult world. And he says, “Grace be with you.” Meaning, “As you go, take it with you, take it with you.” That’s my guess. Is that the letter itself is an event of the impartation of grace.

The letter itself. It’s coming to you through the letter, and as you close the book in the morning and head off to work, he’s saying, “Take it with you, the grace that you received, don’t leave it behind in the book. Own it by faith. Be full of it by faith. Take it with you. I’m praying for you that grace would go with you to work today. That you would be standing in grace all day long. Be like a big bubble around you. You be breathing grace and eating grace and smelling grace all day long. The grace of God who loves you and sent his son to die for you. So go, let it go with you.”

That’s my take on why the structure of every letter should begin with, “Grace to you,” and end with, “Grace be with you.” So as we are talking here, you should believe that insofar as I faithfully open this word and the Holy Spirit is on us here, fresh grace is coming to you. Divine influence for your good is coming to do things in your life right now that you perhaps did not anticipate he would do. And things you brought in here, issues, heaviness, perplexities, discouragements, you name it. Whatever you brought in here, grace is coming. Unique special grace is flowing through the word insofar as I get it right and the Holy Spirit ministers what I say to you.

Pray for Grace

That’s what we should be praying for. That God would just surprise you. Surprise you. I sent a text to my daughter, she’s in Louisville, Kentucky, 19 years old, turned 20 in about two weeks. And I was just so moved as I was getting ready for this. I was sitting in bed this afternoon. I just texted her because she’s three hours earlier, later. And I just texted her Ephesians 3:20: “And now unto him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly.”

I said, “Just thinking about you, Thalitha, and just prayed this verse,” and pasted Ephesians 3:20 in there. “And now to him who is able to do exceedingly, abundantly.” And I just said, “May God do a special thing for you tonight.” She texted back, “Wow, Daddy. I needed that. That was perfect.” And I really meant that. I pray that, “Lord, something unusual, something special, something unexpected by your word as she reads it.” And that’s what I want for you.