Monday, March 18, 2013
James 4:15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.”
When we speak about the will of God, we are referring to "what God desires" or "what God has planned". Often you will hear people trying to find God's will or wanting to know what God's will is for their lives. We know God is a personal God who chooses and decides to accomplish His purposes in accordance to His character and nature. The Baptist Faith & Message 2000 makes this observation: "God is all powerful and all knowing; and His perfect knowledge extends to all things, past, present, and future, including the future decisions of His free creatures."1
How other writers have understood God's will
In studying Christian writers and theologians who have written on the will of God, all of them without exception find in scripture certain distinctions within God's will. Anytime we try to organize the Bible's teachings on a given subject, we refer to such an attempt as "systematic theology". For example, the great theologian Charles Hodge speaks about God's decretive will and preceptive will. By decretive will Hodge means that part of His will which concerns His purposes and future events, whereas God's preceptive will relates to the rule of duty for His creatures.2 Wayne Grudem in his work "Systematic Theology", defines God's will: "that attribute of God whereby He approves and determines to bring about every action necessary for existence and activity of Himself and all creation." 3 In Grudem's discussion he mentions such distinctions as God's necessary and free will and secret and revealed will. We could cite others, but the point is made: it is helpful to proceed into the study of God's will in the Bible by noting legitimate distinctions within His will.
Setting forth a proposed way of understanding God's will
In today's blog I want to give you some handles by which you can grab hold of in gaining a better understanding of God's will.4 The distinctions that I will bring out are based partly off of writers I have read over the years, sermons I have heard and some thinking and praying in my own studies. The aim here is to give you better understanding that will lead to more effective application. Our study will be based out of James 4:12-17 and other passages as we aim to understand how to live effectively in the will of God. Note the following distinctions:
1. God's Ultimate Will - James 4:12
God's Ultimate Will is His overall, all-encompassing will that will come to pass no matter what. Job 42:2 tells us: "I know that You can do all things, And that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted." Ultimately and Sovereignly God alone has the power (omnipotence), knowledge (omniscience) and presence (omnipresence) to bring to pass everything He has planned.5 Whenever Jesus instructs His disciples in Matthew 6:10 to pray "your kingdom come, your will be done", He is speaking of God's ultimate will.
2. God's Ultimate will contains three distinct elements
With God's ultimate will covering all the bases, we understand that within His ultimate will there are the decisions of free-moral creatures, the march of history, the existence of evil and the accomplishment of His glory. Three aspects of God's will fit under the umbrella of His Ultimate or Sovereign Will:
a. God's unrevealed will. James 4:13-14
James 4:13-14 states - "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”— 14 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." (ESV) What is God's unrevealed will? Simply - it is that part of His will that I cannot know. The Bible clearly tells us that there are aspects of God's will that only He knows. (Deuteronomy 29:29) You and I certainly cannot know what will happen tomorrow. (Proverbs 27:1; Matthew 6:34) Does that mean we should not plan - no; however we should not at the same time worry and try to figure out what is on the next page of God's plan. We may not know when Jesus is coming back, since only such information is known to the Father (Matthew 24:36), however that does not relieve us to live sensibly and godly lives until His appearing. (Philippians 3:20-21; 1 John 3:1-3). We must accept the fact that there are things only God knows. Furthermore, we must also recognize that God never contradicts Himself in any aspect of His will, thus whatever He has chosen not to make known will never conflict with what He has revealed. This is why James instructs his readers to not presume on the future, since it is unknown to them.
b. God's Permissive Will. James 4:15-16
James writes in 4:15 "Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” God's permissive will is simply that which He allows or permits to occur, either by history, events or the decisions of His creatures, within the bounds of His Ultimate will. Do not think of God's permissive will as Him letting a part of His creation do whatever it wants apart from His supervision. Likewise, do not think of permission by God as meaning that such decisions or activities are condoned by Him. Certainly the cross is the best example of His permissive will as revealed in Acts 2:23 - "this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men." The cross took place within the bounds of God's ultimate will, however the means of its accomplishment was permitted to include injustice, the wicked plots of the Jews and Pilate and the torture of crucifixion itself. God uses means to accomplish His ends. He willed to permit to the fall to accomplish the grander purpose of His glory. (Genesis 3:1-7; Romans 8:22-23) At times we may know why God permits certain things, and then at other times we may not know why He permits other things. All we do know is that He has ordained to permit actions and decisions, both good and bad, to accomplish His purpose of glory and His work of redemption. (Romans 8:28; 2 Peter 3:9)
c. God's revealed will. James 4:17
James writes in 4:17 "So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin." How do we know what is right and wrong? To know what God says is wrong and right means we know His will. Deuteronomy 29:29 tells us that God has an unrevealed will which we cannot know and a revealed will that we can and must know. What is God's revealed will? His Word. Clearly if you cannot know God's will or desires on a given matter, then you are not responsible nor held liable for failing to accomplish it. However if I know what I need to do, and yet fail to do, to me it is sin as James tells us. The Bible reveals areas that are clearly God's will for me that require no guess work. You and I as Christians are to study God's Word (2 Timothy 2:15); keep ourselves morally pure (1 Thessalonians 4:3); pray (1 Thessalonians 5:19) and be good, godly examples to unbelievers. (1 Peter 2:15)
Concluding thoughts and applications
So with those distinctions in mind, how can we bring this study to the point of application?
1. First of all, we cannot be out of God's ultimate will, however we can be out of His revealed will. Were the soldiers and the Jewish people out of God's revealed will in how they treated Jesus - absolutely! However it was God's ultimate will for them to crucify the Lord. So when we are concerned whether or not we are out of the will of God - we are talking about His revealed will.
2. Secondly, though I may not have access to God's unrevealed will, that does not release me to be unfaithful. Paul for example attempted to go into the area of Asia Minor in his missionary work and was hindered. (Acts 16:7) God did not reveal why He was not permitting Paul and his companions to go into that area, however that did not prevent Paul from being faithful in what he did know - namely to keep sharing the Gospel. As later chapters would reveal, it was God's ultimate will to go into Asia minor, however He first would have to go into Macedonia, a fact that God did reveal to Paul in Acts 16:9.
3. Thirdly and finally, keeping the distinctions of God's will in mind can curb discouragement and confusion
When I encounter an area of God's unrevealed will, I know I need to trust and wait. (Proverbs 3:5-6; Isaiah 40:31) When I am dealing with God's permissive will, I may need to trust or obey, depending upon whether I have been made aware of why He is permitting something or not. When you and I have clear direction from God's revealed will (the Bible), we need to obey. (John 14:15,21)
1. Baptist Faith & Message 2000: Article II "God". In the third sentence down in the opening paragraph on the statement about God, the BFM 2000 connects God's will to Who He is as the all-powerful, all-knowing God. Clearly if God were not all powerful, knowing and present, then he would not nor could not exercise His will over creation, redemption nor people.
2. Hodge, Charles. Systemative Theology - Volume 1. Page 403
Charles Hodge was a 19th century conservative, Bible believing theologian who taught theology at Princeton University when it was then a conservative school of theology.
3. Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology. Page 211. Grudem's theology is probably about the most widely read and used theology text in many conservative seminaries and Bible Colleges today.
4. So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.
5. Clearly there are some things which God planned that will occur regardless of creaturely involvement. We know for example that His Kingdom and Christ's return to conquer all other kingdoms is His Ultimate will for all history. (Daniel 2:44; Revelation 11:15). We know that the cross was His ultimate will concerning redemption. (Acts 2:23-24) Then another example, final judgment, is God's ultimate will for dealing with sin and fairly dealing with all of those who reject Him. (Isaiah 33:22; Matthew 25; James 4:12; Revelation 20) One more example of God's ultimate will is the fact that He works all things together for every child of God whom He chose, called, convicted and who in turn believed in order to be saved. (Genesis 50:20; Romans 8:28-30)