The Two Wills of God
As I have sought to better understand the Bible, one of the most significant theological discoveries I have made is in regards to how I understand the will of God. The Bible refers to God’s will, either explicitly or implicitly, perhaps hundreds of times. It has been noted over the years by theologians that the phrase “will of God” is used in more than one way in the Scriptures, but for the purposes of this article I simply want to give a brief overview of what I call “the two wills of God”.
In order for the Bible to make sense, and to have the greatest degree of cohesiveness, it helps to understand that within the Person of God are at least two different wills. Consider, for example, the following passage, which cites a prayer by early believers:
for 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)
Pay close attention to the details contained in this short passage. One thing to note is that three different groups of people are considered to be responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus. We see both Herod Antipas and Pontius Pilate mentioned, who represent legal oversight from the government that essentially gave approval for Jesus’ execution. There is also the Gentiles, which would likely be a reference to the Roman soldiers who beat Jesus, flogged him, and nailed him to the cross. The last group is the people of Israel, who would include both the High Priest, his council, and the crowd who shouted “crucify him!”
These three groups are all said to have gathered together “against” Jesus. There was intentional animosity and desire to harm. Actually, more than that…there was desire for bloodshed! All these people worked together to ensure that Jesus, the “holy servant” and “anointed” One, was put to death.
One important thing to observe. It should go without saying that the people who had Jesus murdered were committing sin. You don’t simply kill the Son of God and have it be a morally neutral thing. It is a sin, a travesty, a wickedness that is perhaps unequalled in the history of the world. Proverbs 6:17 lists “hands that shed innocent blood” as one of the seven sins God most detests. That is precisely what happened when Jesus was executed. Innocent blood was shed. This very passage in Acts 4 calls Jesus “holy”, and so it should not be a stretch to say that what happened when Jesus was crucified was wrong.
A Complex Issue
If Jesus’ murder was a sin, then it is safe to say that it would not have been God’s will for it to happen. God does not desire for man to sin. He desires for us to live godly lives. According to Proverbs 6:17, shedding innocent blood is against God’s will. It opposes his desires.
And yet, the very next sentence says just the opposite. Acts 4:28 said that these wicked people had gathered together “to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place”. Evidently, it was part of God’s plan to have his Son killed on a cross. In fact, it was not just God’s plan, as if he was watching from a distance. God even had his “hand” in it. He was somehow actively involved in the whole series of events that led up to Jesus’ crucifixion. In other words, it was God’s will for it to happen.
How in the world can that make sense? Was it God’s will for Jesus to be murdered, or was it not?
Making Sense of a Paradox
The answer is both. It was God’s will for Jesus to die. And it was not God’s will for Jesus to die. The way these two fit together is what I mean by “the two wills of God”.
There is a sense in which God did not will for Jesus to die. He did not desire it, because it is evil and wrong. God does not want evil; rather, he is for righteousness. But God also did desire Jesus to die in a different sense, because it was part of God’s sovereign plan of salvation.
Theologians have used various terms to try and differentiate between the two wills of God. Sometimes they are referred to as “God’s will” verses “God’s plan”. In these terms, God’s will includes only what God deems to be morally desirable. On the other hand, God’s plan includes things that are not always morally desirable but fit into a larger picture that includes a mixture of good and evil.
Another way some refer to the two wills of God is “God’s will of desire” verses “God’s will of decree”. In these terms, God’s will of desire is what he would ideally want (which does not always happen), whereas God’s will of decree is what God definitively determines will take place (which always happens).
Whatever terms you would like to use, there is no denying that God has two different, simultaneous, opposing, yet somehow co-mingling wills. In fact, in the example in Acts 4:27-28, one could actually say that God wills something that he does not will. He decrees his own displeasure. In some paradoxical way, God wills something to take place that goes against his own will.
Some people might be put off by such a notion. Can this really be God? It sounds more like a person with split-personality disorder! As Bible believing Christians, we understand that God is not a God of confusion, but a God of order (1 Corinthians 14:33), and so we might bristle at the notion of a God with divided wills.
Yet this is not what I am suggesting. I do not believe that God has divided wills (in the sense that God can’t seem to make up his own mind), but rather that God has paradoxical wills, which he can carry in full strength at the same time without being a God of contradiction, instability, or moral licensing. God can somehow ordain that evil take place, while still detesting that evil, and hold the evildoer accountable, while himself committing no evil.
Is that not what is happening in Acts 4:27-28? How else can it be explained?
In case you think that this passage might be some random example and exception to the rule, the same thing is shown two chapters earlier regarding the very same subject. Consider:
this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. (Acts 2:23)
These words, spoken by Peter on the day of Pentecost, contain the exact same paradox. Peter accuses the crowd before him as being guilty of the death of Jesus, calling it the actions of “lawless men”. They are held accountable for their sin. Yet, in the exact same sentence, Peter clearly states that this action happened “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God”. It does not just say “foreknowledge”, as if God only knew it was coming but was not involved in it. Rather, it was also according to his “plan”, meaning that God somehow intended for it to take place.
Once again we have the same dilemma. How can humans be accountable for carrying out God’s own plan? How can God plan sin to take place? Why is God planning evil?
The only explanation is that God has two wills. He has a will of desire, which longs for godliness. And, he has a will of decree, which sometimes allows for ungodliness in order to achieve a higher goal. There is simply no other way to make sense of these passages without jamming into it a human philosophy and abusing the biblical text!
More Common Than You Might Think
The reality is that contradictions about the will of God pervade the Bible. At least, they are contradictions only in that we can’t make complete sense of them. God can make complete sense of them, and that’s what really matters. As finite humans with tiny little brains that only have so much sin-tainted ability, we simply have to admit that God can understand things we cannot. He can make sense of two seemingly contrary ideas, and cause them to fit together in a way we can’t comprehend. God can see harmony when sometimes all we can see is confusion.
Consider that the Bible is full of instances where God’s will is clearly said to be unstoppable, and instances where God’s will is clearly stopped.
You can’t stop God!
- I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. (Job 42:2)
- Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases. (Psalm 115:3)
- all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and 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)
- Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand. (Proverbs 19:1)
- so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.(Isaiah 55:11)
- …who can resist his will? (Romans 9:19)
Or, maybe you can.
- You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. (Acts 7:51)
- Because of the iniquity of his unjust gain I was angry, I struck him; I hid my face and was angry, but he went on backsliding in the way of his own heart. (Isaiah 57:17)
- But Pharaoh hardened his heart this time also, and did not let the people go. (Exodus 8:32)
- When I called, they did not listen. (Zechariah 7:13)
- The LORD spoke to Manasseh and to his people, but they paid no attention. (2 Chronicles 33:10)
How do we make sense of this? By understanding the two wills of God. God has a kind of will that can be resisted, and he has a kind of will that cannot be resisted. How these two realities play out and function together…well, I simply have no idea!
I try to encourage people to study the Bible rigorously, but always keep in mind that how some parts of it fit with others will always remain a divine mystery. I aim to live by the principle found in Deuteronomy 29:29, which says…
The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.
There are some things that God has revealed to us, and they are for us to know. But there are some things that God has not revealed for us to know. Our job is not to figure everything out, but to rightly discern what we can and should know about God, let that lead us into a life of faith and holiness, and leave the rest to God.
I would encourage you, if you find these things unsettling or hard to accept, to begin by bringing the matter in prayer to God and study the Bible for yourself. Use every ounce of cognitive ability you have, and know that ultimately the discovery of truth is a gift from God. Think hard. Pray hard. And, over time, God’s Spirit will guide you into all truth.
Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything. (2 Timothy 2:7)