What Is the Will of God and How Do We Know It?
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1–2)
The aim of Romans 12:1–2 is that all of life would become “spiritual worship.” Verse 1: “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” The aim of all human life in God’s eyes is that Christ would be made to look as valuable as he is. Worship means using our minds and hearts and bodies to express the worth of God and all he is for us in Jesus. There is a way to live — a way to love — that does that. There is a way to do your job that expresses the true value of God. If you can’t find it, that may mean you should change jobs. Or it might mean that verse 2 is not happening to the degree it should.
Verse 2 is Paul’s answer to how we turn all of life into worship. We must be transformed. We must be transformed. Not just our external behavior, but the way we feel and think — our minds. Verse 2: “Be transformed by the renewal of your mind.”
Become What You Are
Those who believe in Christ Jesus are already blood-bought new creatures in Christ. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). But now we must become what we are. “Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened” (1 Corinthians 5:7).
“Worship means using our minds and hearts and bodies to express the worth of God and all he is for us in Jesus.”
“You have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Colossians 3:10). You have been made new in Christ; and now you are being renewed day by day. That’s what we focused on last week.
Now we focus on the last part of verse 2, namely, the aim of the renewed mind: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, [now here comes the aim] that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” So our focus today is on the meaning of the term “will of God” and how we discern it.
The Two Wills of God
There are two clear and very different meanings for the term “will of God” in the Bible. We need to know them and decide which one is being used here in Romans 12:2. In fact, knowing the difference between these two meanings of “the will of God” is crucial to understanding one of the biggest and most perplexing things in all the Bible, namely, that God is sovereign over all things and yet disapproves of many things. Which means that God disapproves of some of what he ordains to happen. That is, he forbids some of the things he brings about. And he commands some of the things he hinders. Or to put it most paradoxically: God wills some events in one sense that he does not will in another sense.
1. God’s Will of Decree, or Sovereign Will
Let’s see the passages of Scripture that make us think this way. First consider passages that describe “the will of God” as his sovereign control of all that comes to pass. One of the clearest is the way Jesus spoke of the will of God in Gethsemane when he was praying. He said, in Matthew 26:39, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” What does the will of God refer to in this verse? It refers to the sovereign plan of God that will happen in the coming hours. You recall how Acts 4:27–28 says this: “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.” So the “will of God” was that Jesus die. This was his plan, his decree. There was no changing it, and Jesus bowed and said, “Here’s my request, but you do what is best to do.” That’s the sovereign will of God.
And don’t miss the very crucial point here that it includes the sins of man. Herod, Pilate, the soldiers, the Jewish leaders — they all sinned in fulfilling God’s will that his Son be crucified (Isaiah 53:10). So be very clear on this: God wills to come to pass some things that he hates.
Here’s an example from 1 Peter. In 1 Peter 3:17, Peter writes, “It is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.” In other words, it may be God’s will that Christians suffer for doing good. He has in mind persecution. But persecution of Christians who do not deserve it is sin. So again, God sometimes wills that events come about that include sin. “It is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will.”
Paul gives a sweeping summary statement of this truth in Ephesians 1:11, “In him [Christ] 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.” The will of God is God’s sovereign governance of all that comes to pass. And there are many other passages in the Bible that teach that God’s providence over the universe extends to the smallest details of nature and human decisions. Not one sparrow falls to the ground apart from our Father in heaven (Matthew 10:29). “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord” (Proverbs 16:33). “The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the Lord” (Proverbs 16:1). “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will” (Proverbs 21:1).
That’s the first meaning of the will of God: It is God’s sovereign control of all things. We will call this his “sovereign will” or his “will of decree.” It cannot be broken. It always comes to pass. “He does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, ‘What have you done?’” (Daniel 4:35).
2. God’s Will of Command
Now the other meaning for “the will of God” in the Bible is what we can call his “will of command.” His will is what he commands us to do. This is the will of God we can disobey and fail to do. The will of decree we do whether we believe in it or not. The will of command we can fail to do. For example, Jesus said, “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). Not all do the will of his Father. He says so. “Not everyone will enter the kingdom of heaven.” Why? Because not all do the will of God.
Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 4:3, “This is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality.” Here we have a very specific instance of what God commands us: holiness, sanctification, sexual purity. This is his will of command. But, oh, so many do not obey.
Then Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 5:18, “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” There again is a specific aspect of his will of command: Give thanks in all circumstances. But many do not do this will of God.
“Immerse yourself in the written word of God. Saturate your mind with it.”
One more example: “And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever” (1 John 2:17). Not all abide forever. Some do. Some don’t. The difference? Some do the will of God. Some don’t. The will of God, in this sense, does not always happen.
So I conclude from these and many other passages of the Bible that there are two ways of talking about the will of God. Both are true, and both are important to understand and believe in. One we can call God’s will of decree (or his sovereign will) and the other we can call God’s will of command. His will of decree always comes to pass whether we believe in it or not. His will of command can be broken, and is every day.
The Preciousness of These Truths
Before I relate this to Romans 12:2, let me comment on how precious these two truths are. Both correspond to a deep need that we all have when we are deeply hurt or experience great loss. On the one hand, we need the assurance that God is in control and therefore is able to work all of my pain and loss together for my good and the good of all who love him. On the other hand, we need to know that God empathizes with us and does not delight in sin or pain in and of themselves. These two needs correspond to God’s will of decree and his will of command.
For example, if you were badly abused as a child, and someone asks you, “Do you think that was the will of God?” you now have a way to make some biblical sense out of this, and give an answer that doesn’t contradict the Bible. You may say, “No it was not God’s will; because he commands that humans not be abusive, but love each other. The abuse broke his commandment and therefore moved his heart with anger and grief (Mark 3:5). But, in another sense, yes, it was God’s will (his sovereign will), because there are a hundred ways he could have stopped it. But for reasons I don’t yet fully understand, he didn’t.”
And corresponding to these two wills are the two things you need in this situation: one is a God who is strong and sovereign enough to turn it for good; and the other is a God who is able to empathize with you. On the one hand, Christ is a sovereign High King, and nothing happens apart from his will (Matthew 28:18). On the other hand, Christ is a merciful High Priest and sympathizes with our weaknesses and pain (Hebrews 4:15). The Holy Spirit conquers us and our sins when he wills (John 1:13; Romans 9:15–16), and allows himself to be quenched and grieved and angered when he wills (Ephesians 4:30; 1 Thessalonians 5:19). His sovereign will is invincible, and his will of command can be grievously broken.
We need both these truths — both these understandings of the will of God — not only to make sense out of the Bible, but to hold fast to God in suffering.
Now, which of these is meant in Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” The answer surely is that Paul is referring to God’s will of command. I say this for at least two reasons. One is that God does not intend for us to know most of his sovereign will ahead of time. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us” (Deuteronomy 29:29). If you want to know the future details of God’s will of decree, you don’t want a renewed mind, you want a crystal ball. This is not called transformation and obedience; it’s called divination, soothsaying.
The other reason I say that the will of God in Romans 12:2 is God’s will of command and not his will of decree is that the phrase “by testing you may discern” implies that we should approve of the will of God and then obediently do it. But in fact we should not approve of sin or do it, even though it is part of God’s sovereign will. Paul’s meaning in Romans 12:2 is paraphrased almost exactly in Hebrews 5:14, which says, “Solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (See also Philippians 1:9–11.) That’s the goal of this verse: not ferreting out the secret will of God that he plans to do, but discerning the revealed will of God that we ought to do.
There are three stages of knowing and doing the revealed will of God, that is, his will of command; and all of them require the renewed mind with its Holy-Spirit-given discernment that we talked about last time.
First, God’s will of command is revealed with final, decisive authority only in the Bible. And we need the renewed mind to understand and embrace what God commands in the Scripture. Without the renewed mind, we will distort the Scriptures to avoid their radical commands for self-denial, and love, and purity, and supreme satisfaction in Christ alone. God’s authoritative will of command is found only in the Bible. Paul says that the Scriptures are inspired and make the Christian “competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16–17). Not just some good works. “Every good work.” Oh, what energy and time and devotion Christians should spend meditating on the written word of God.
The second stage of God’s will of command is our application of the biblical truth to new situations that may or may not be explicitly addressed in the Bible. The Bible does not tell you which person to marry, or which car to drive, or whether to own a home, where you take your vacation, what cell phone plan to buy, or which brand of orange juice to drink. Or a thousand other choices you must make.
“If you want to know the future details of God’s will of decree, you don’t want a renewed mind, you want a crystal ball.”
What is necessary is that we have a renewed mind, that is so shaped and so governed by the revealed will of God in the Bible, that we see and assess all relevant factors with the mind of Christ, and discern what God is calling us to do. This is very different from constantly trying to hear God’s voice saying do this and do that. People who try to lead their lives by hearing voices are not in sync with Romans 12:2.
There is a world of difference between praying and laboring for a renewed mind that discerns how to apply God’s word, on the one hand, and the habit of asking God to give you new revelation of what to do, on the other hand. Divination does not require transformation. God’s aim is a new mind, a new way of thinking and judging, not just new information. His aim is that we be transformed, sanctified, freed by the truth of his revealed word (John 8:32; 17:17). So the second stage of God’s will of command is the discerning application of the Scriptures to new situations in life by means of a renewed mind.
Finally, the third stage of God’s will of command is the vast majority of living where there is no conscious reflection before we act. I venture to say that a good 95 percent of your behavior you do not premeditate. That is, most of your thoughts, attitudes, and actions are spontaneous. They are just spillover from what’s inside. Jesus said, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Matthew 12:34–36).
Why do I call this part of God’s will of command? For one reason. Because God commands things like: Don’t be angry. Don’t be prideful. Don’t covet. Don’t be anxious. Don’t be jealous. Don’t envy. And none of those actions are premeditated. Anger, pride, covetousness, anxiety, jealousy, envy — they all just rise up out of the heart with no conscious reflection or intention. And we are guilty because of them. They break the commandment of God.
Is it not plain therefore that there is one great task of the Christian life: Be transformed by the renewing of your mind. We need new hearts and new minds. Make the tree good and the fruit will be good (Matthew 12:33). That’s the great challenge. That is what God calls you to. You can’t do it on your own. You need Christ, who died for your sins. And you need the Holy Spirit to lead you into Christ-exalting truth and to work in you truth-embracing humility.
Give yourself to this. Immerse yourself in the written word of God; saturate your mind with it. And pray that the Spirit of Christ would make you so new that the spillover would be good, acceptable, and perfect — the will of God.