I can remember it vividly. I was looking at a chart (back in ‘70’s) which had a diagram of how to follow God’s ‘perfect will’ for my life—major, marriage partner, vocation, where to live, every detail of life. More than one para-church organizations used this approach with zest. Then the anxiety set in: what happens if I blow it? Am I consigned for God’s second best for the rest of my life? Such was my introduction to ‘God’s Will.’ But I have grown a bit (older and waist size) since then and realized that there is more than one will of God, and what had been taught as ‘gospel’ regarding the perfect will of God would itself come under intense scrutiny. A book was published which finally brought some sanity to the situation, but it sure stirred up a hornets nest!
I hope this discussion, coming on the heels of our dealing with God’s sovereign decrees, will maximally benefit and edify you. I have seen that there are at least three ‘wills of God’ in the Word of God. God’s sovereign/decretive will, preceptive will, and His will of wisdom. Perhaps that we experience different kinds of wills, desires and pleasures ourselves are analogous. Theologians distinguish between God’s antecedent and consequent will but that does not serve our purpose, and His affective will.
God’s sovereign will, or decretive will (decrees) is His eternal purposes by which God foreordains everything that comes to pass. This focuses on His Lordship attribute of control, where His preceptive will accents His attribute of authority. For the most part, God’s decretive will is hidden (Deut, 29:29) until it happens. 1.20As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many peopleb should be kept alive, as they are today. 21So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them. (Gen. 50:20) I included the next verse because this ‘will’ reminds us that God is our final situation/environment because he decrees all that happens to us (Rom. 8:28), and this helped Joseph to not be bitter and to calm his brothers fears. We can learn from this.
25 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; 26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27 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.(Matt. 11:25-27) (Ps. 51:18; 115:3; Is. 46:10; Jer. 49:20; 50:45; Dan 4:17; Acts 2:32; Rom 9:18-19; Eph 1:11; James 1:18; Rev 4:11)
These two verses explicitly refer to God’s decretive will, as well as the cited texts) Since we spent an entire segment last time on God’s decretive will I think we can leave it at that. Except to compare it briefly later. It just helps us to see that there are more than one will of God, though they are united in His mind.
2.21 “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 (Matt. 7:21)
7 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. (Eph. 5:17) b
2 Do not be conformed to this world,c 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.d (Rom. 12:2)
34 Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work. (John 4:34)
3 For this is the will of God, your sanctification:b that you abstain from sexual immorality; 4that each one of you know how to control his own bodyc in holiness and honor, (1 Thess. 4:3-4)
16 Rejoice always, 17pray without ceasing, 18give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19 Do not quench the Spirit. (1 Thess. 5:16-19)
We see in these texts, which could be multiplied many fold, reveal the purpose of God’s preceptive will—God’s words on how to live in a way pleasing to Him. And as we have noted, God’s sovereign will can never be broken, but God’s preceptive or moral will is broken all the time.
We are to meditate on God’s moral law (Ps. 1) and the entire 119th psalm is an eloquent appeal to obey to God’s glorious and lovely moral law. As we noted, God’s decretive will accents His control, and His moral law His authority. He has the right to elicit absolute obligation and obedience from His creatures, and especially those creatures whom he has ransomed. God’s preceptive will is His revealed law or commandments, which we have the power but not the right to break. If we are seeking God’s will, this is primarily it.
We see from the language of the preceptive texts above that their purpose is to show us God’s will for our lives. As a rule, God’s moral law is what we are to seek as God’s will. What is God’s will for you at any given moment? Love Him with all your being; be filled with the Spirit; flee from idolatry and sexual sin; all the 1,050 commands in New Testament in addition to moral law of Old Testament. If we obey His moral law, then 90 % of our guidance problems are solved.
3. However, speaking as a retired pastor, what if someone asks: “How can I find God’s will for my life regarding this job, marriage (fill in blank)?” It seems to me that it would unkind of me to speak in terms of God’s decree: ‘Whatever happens is God’s will for you.” And to speak preceptively, may miss his point entirely. He wants specific guidance regarding a specific issue: who to marry, if to marry, which vocation to choose, what city to move to, etc? Hard to find moral laws explicitly pertaining to those, except, for example, marry only a Christian.
We spoke of the sufficiency of God’s Word but there are situations where folks need help in applying that Word. Only Scripture can provide conscience binding norms for decision making but there are ways of seeking wisdom. Indeed Proverbs and James speak of wisdom relating to decision making. (James 1:5) The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Prov. 1:7). Seeking wisdom given by the Holy Spirit, we can apply the precepts of the Lord to life. The notion that the will of God is ONLY ONE COURSE OF ACTION, as I was taught (God’s perfect will) causes confusion and anxiety. If I have a choice to move to Chicago or Atlanta, the reality is that either possibility may be equally acceptable to God. If our motives are right and no moral law is broken in moving to either city, then we can assume that either decision is within the will of God.
But we can refine our wisdom decision further. Though nothing obvious is against God’s moral law in moving to Chicago, after prayer and meditating, it becomes apparent that my ‘motivated abilities’ in work would be better tapped into an Atlanta job—then I should pursue it. Or, knowing myself, Atlanta would present some overwhelming temptation situations, then I should consider Chicago. These pluses and minuses need to be weighed. And all along bathed in prayer….seeking the Lord.
According to Proverbs, wisdom is often found via intelligence, prayer, skills, feelings, imagination, understanding circumstances and other people, self knowledge, and possible consequences of an action. Scripture wants us to make decisions as wisely as possible. If it is clear that analyzing the pluses and minuses yields a clear result, then we can assume that is God’s moral will. God’s preceptive will includes primarily the Word of God itself but also ‘good and necessary consequences’ of Scripture. If something can be clearly deduced from the Word of God, then it is the Word of God in application (must be careful here, WCF 1:6—see below). Chapter 1: Of The Holy Scriptures, Section 6: VI. The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture:
But if after doing a prayerful weighing of pros and cons, and both are equally wise, then either decision is within the will of God—contrary to the ‘perfect will of God’ notion, which has caused much anxiety and constant worry: did that one wrong turn consign me God’s Plan B for the rest of my life? That is awful and yet it reigned supreme for a long time as THE paradigm for discerning Gods will. I remember the brouhaha that ensued when a book was written that challenged it and thoroughly demolished the notion as contrary to God’s Word and harmful.
Let us summarize this discussion by seeing the connection of the various decrees and how it leads to wise decision making. God guides us through His decrees, His written Word/preceptive will, and Spirit given wisdom.
By God’s sovereign decrees He opens and closes doors—presenting some options and preventing others. If a house is sold then it is not for you. If a person is 3,000 miles away, then they are not for you as a potential marriage partner! Second, by His preceptive will He shows us how to respond to these circumstances. If a job requires you to work 90 hours a week, and wreck relationships, then it is not good/moral. Lastly, Spirit given wisdom through prayer enables us to apply the Word of God and other important factors (e.g. how close do you want to be to your aging mother?) to our circumstances.
I think it is this process that Paul has in mind in Romans 12:1-2 and Eph. 5:10 where we grow in maturity by reading God’s Word and constantly and prayerfully applying it to our lives. The more we read the better we can apply God’s Word, and the more we apply the Word, the better we understand God’s Word, and this leads to deeper understanding of application/circumstances, etc. The hermeneutical circle I mentioned before.
Again, when we make unwise decisions, we have not missed out forever on God’s will for our lives. After we have made an unwise decision, we should turn to God’s wisdom again, confident that we will be led in the path of blessing.
These three categories: decree, precept, and wisdom, are perspectivally related. God decrees to act according to His precepts and wisdom. His precepts includes bowing before God’s sovereign decrees and seeking wisdom. And His wisdom is displayed both in His decrees and in His Word.
May I quickly apply this to singles seeking to be married. Some would tell this to singles: trust solely in the Lord, and when you give that desire over to God, then He will bring the perfect man of His choice (applying this now to women). Usually some person will testify that they, too, wanted to get married but once they ‘gave that urge up to God’, then God brought a husband to her. Just pray, surrender your urges and He will bring the man of His choice your way.
First, it was in the perfect garden when GOD uttered the first malediction—it was not good for man to be alone. Here is perfect Adam with deep longing for suitable companion and God did not tell him that when he ‘gets over it’, then I will provide for you. No, it is a God-given desire…not to be sublimated. It is one thing to surrender the desire to God and wait assertively (see below), but it is quite another to imply you need to basically deny the very urge God implanted within us—mirroring Trinity. Bring that urge to God and honestly acknowledge it before Him as psalmist expressed his honest emotions.
Second, this is changing, but many Christian women still think they have to be entirely passive in their search for a husband. Would you be passive in a search for a job? Then why be passive here? It is okay to visit churches to worship AND to seek suitable singles ministries/people. I led a singles bible study years ago, and I knew that a big motive was to meet others, and that was fine with me. We could learn God’s Word and folks meet too. Numerous marriages came out of the bible study! Dating sites are a possibility.
Third, perhaps most controversial, I do not know if God has the ‘man of His perfect choice’ for you. I am certain there are no perfect men or women! We live in fallen world, and if you ever say: perfect marriage or none, then you will always get none.But I am convinced that if you follow principles above, then there are possibly numerous different guys/gals you could marry happily, if you are both walking in the Spirit. And it would be within God’s will for you to marry either Jim or Bob (or Jill or Lisa), if they both know the Lord, and everything else being equal—using wisdom regarding compatibility. Perhaps I should have done separate blog on this subject but these are the basic principles of wisdom. I’ll stop there but I hope this helped in your understanding and discerning God’s will for you.
Mark Hunnemann is the author of Seeing Ghosts Through God's Eyes: A Worldview Analysis of Earthbound Spirits. It's also available in eBook format.