Why should the nations say,
“Where is their God?”
Our God is in the heavens;
he does all that he pleases.
Believers will always have questions about the will of God.
For instance, can God do whatever he wants?
Well, when reading texts like that posted above, it seems quite obvious that he can: “he does all that he pleases.” Other translations say, “he does whatever he wants.”
Beyond a simple proof-text, though, it seems very apparent in Scripture that God is not hedged in or boxed in at all. The Triune Creator freely brought everything into existence out of nothing by his word and maintains it at every moment (Col. 1:15-20; Heb. 1:1-3). He is all-powerful—there are no metaphysical limits to stop him.
And he seems to have the right to dispose of all of his works as he sees fit—I mean, doesn’t a potter have the right to do what he wants with his works? (Isaiah 45; Romans 9) He is the Lord of history who directs the courses of nations, which are but a drop in the bucket compared to him (Isaiah 40-55). Certainly the Author has authority over his creation?
Whatever He Wants? Really?
At the same time, there’s a scary edge there, if you’re paying attention. Some people have worried about this kind of talk. I mean, can God really do whatever he wants? Can he make what we currently call evil good and vice versa? Can he break his promises or violate his word just because he feels like it at a given moment?
In other words, when some hear the phrase, “God can do whatever he wants”, they hear “God is arbitrary and capricious—he might do good and he might do evil. He can do whatever he wants.”
Now, this could truly fall into a dark, arbitrary understanding of God’s “sovereignty.” In some of the grizzlier versions of Calvinism and pop-level preaching, you can unfortunately find that. We can call that a caricature if we want, but sadly the caricatures live in real churches. For that reason, some imagine that’s the only or classic version of what that doctrine teaches.
And I get how things can get that way. Reformed theology has typically followed the great Church Father Augustine in affirming that the will of God is the deepest cause of all that exists, and why it exists. Augustine, assuming he was summarizing Scripture (especially the Apostle Paul), taught that nothing precedes God’s will or even causes God’s will to will what he does.
Of course, the hitch is in what sense have people accepted Augustine’s claim here as true?
A Non-Arbitrary God
John Calvin was very clearly (and to some, notoriously) on Augustine’s side in saying that there is no cause beyond God’s will. Quotes to this effect can be found all over his works. But at the same time, it’s often not noticed he also repeatedly condemns “that absolute will of which the Sophists babble, by an impious and profane distinction separating his justice from his power” (Institutes 1.17.2).
In other words, Calvin was critical of a certain ham-fisted view of God’s will. God’s enacting of his power is never divorced from the rest of who he is: loving, just, wise, holy, merciful, gracious, and so forth. God is one and so traditionally it is taught that God is simple (not made up of different, separable parts). So his act of willing is consistent with all of what he is. God won’t will or want something out of the character he has shown himself to be in history and Scripture, so to speak.
A contemporary of Calvin’s, Wolfgang Musculus, similarly said that while we should accept Augustine’s statement in the sense that “there is nothing prior to or greater than the will of God…if we understand it of those things that are not in God” (cited in R. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Vol 3: The Divine Essence and Attributes, p. 437). In other words, God’s will is not forced by things outside of God (creation, other wills, etc). The things that God causes directly, or permits to happen indirectly, and so forth, happen because God has chosen to act this way or allow these things for his own reasons.
Now, God either permits something willingly or unwillingly. If he permits it unwillingly, then it’s not really permission. It’s coercion. And to say that God can be coerced—that there is a power that is greater than God and can force his hand—is repugnant to Scripture and absurd. This is why Musculus says we ought to agree with that God’s will is ultimate over and against anything outside of him.
What’s more, it should be noted that for the Reformed tradition, creation is a free act of God. The only necessary object of God’s will is his own perfect life—the eternal love and delight of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Triune God’s perfect aseity or independence means that God is complete within himself. For that reason, God does not need to create, to initiate history as some sort of self-completion project.
As Dutch theologian Wilhelmus à Brakel puts it, “God is all-sufficient in himself, having had no need to create any of his creatures. The creature can neither add glory nor felicity to him” (The Christian’s Reasonable Service, Vol. 1, 193-194).
But none of this means that God’s will is absolutely arbitrary in the sense that God wills things for no good reason at all or that his will could wander in any direction regardless of God’s character. As Bavinck says, “God’s will is one with his being, his wisdom, his goodness, and all his other perfections” (Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 2: God and Creation, 240). God’s will is what it is—good—because he is eternally and un-changingly good.
So God can do whatever he wants, but what he wants is not arbitrary.
At this point we run up against a number of issues when we think about things like God’s will for history, his will for humans, his will for good, and the problem of evil.
Are Sinners “Doing” the Will of God?
Let’s get at the question another way. When we look at someone who is committing a sin, can we say that they are fulfilling the will of God in any sense?
When it comes to God’s will for history, Scripture points in some complicated directions worth exploring first.
Let’s start with a modest case. God tells Abraham in Genesis 15:12-16 that his descendants would be taken as slaves in a foreign land for hundreds of years before they inherit the promised lands he will give them. Surely we see that he knows the evil that’s going to happen–the hundreds of years full of generations born into cruel slavery, violence, oppression, and death–and he just as surely could stop it. I mean, given the Exodus, the mighty signs and wonders he works there to set them free, and the dozens of miracles, providential turns that he works later in Scripture, he very obviously could have stopped it. But he very clearly doesn’t. Here we reach at least one sense where the evil that occurs happens only because God willingly allows it. And if he willingly allows it, then there is a clear sense in which it happens “according to his will”—at least in the sense that he doesn’t step in to stop what he could. He wills not to interfere.
Later in Genesis we encounter a far bolder sense of God’s will in relation to evil, when we read of Joseph being sold into slavery by the wickedness, jealousy, evil, and malice of his brothers. Yet when talks to them years later, he doesn’t excuse them or say they didn’t really do evil, but he also says that they did these things according to God’s will. Indeed, he goes further and said that there is a way that God was working good through their evil. Given his position in the kingdom of Egypt, he can say, “you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life” (Gen. 45:5), and “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Gen. 50:20). God did not only work good after the fact–after the brothers did what he couldn’t prevent–no, God sent Joseph ahead.
Now, we could examine any number of similar Old Testament narratives, but this isn’t only an Old Testament thing.
Indeed, we see the same thing in the preaching of the apostles about the death of Jesus. Peter preached that Jesus was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” to be “crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23). Or again, in his prayer after being released from being beaten, he states that “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).
On this apostles’ read, the free actions of the evil-doers who crucified Jesus were decreed and predestined by God to take place so that the world might be saved.
In this, the disciples didn’t depart from their master. When he sent them out, Jesus told them “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father” (Matt. 10:29). Jesus’ comfort to his disciples is not merely that God sees sparrows fall. The point is that even sparrows are under God’s providence. No evil can befall them without his permission, so they should take heart in God since they are worth more than mere sparrows.
More importantly, in his hour of fear, it was to that same Father that the Beloved Son prayed in the Garden of Gethesemane “not my will, but thine be done” (Luke 22:42)—right before he was led away by the hands of sinful men to be crucified so that Scripture might be fulfilled. Indeed, it was precisely for that hour that he had come (John 12:27). It is quite clear that Christ understands the events to follow—the perversity, rebellion, and blasphemy of the High Priest and Pilate—as in some sense conforming to the will of his Father. Otherwise, “you would have no power over me” (John 19:11).
The Secret Things Belong To the LORD
And with these kinds of testimonies in mind, we come to some helpful dead guy distinctions.
Even though they said that God had only one will (in the sense of “faculty of willing”), and ultimately one will for everything, texts like these pushed the older theologians to distinguish between aspects or dimensions of God’s will. While Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and others carved things up a little differently, the Reformed most typically spoke of God’s “prescriptive will” and God’s “decretal will”, or God’s “revealed will” and his “will of good pleasure.”
The first is God’s revealed “will” consisting in his commands for us and our good like the 10 commandments, the promises we’re supposed to believe, specific commands given to historical figures, and so forth. There is the will of command which we can obey or disobey which verses like Psalm 143:10 talk about (“teach me to do your will”). It is moral will for our conduct that conforms to our nature as his dependent, obedient creatures.
The second is God’s ultimate will for what he will either do or permit to be done “according to his good pleasure” (Eph. 1:5; 5:10; cf. Matt. 11:26; Romans 9:19; Phil. 2:13), as we have been examining in the preceding passages. It is this God’s will of decree which is sure, constant, and unchanging like we read in other verses like Romans 9:19 (“For who has resisted his will?”), or Ephesians 1:11 which speaks of God working out his predestined purposes according to his “eternal counsel” to work out all things.
So then, there are two senses (at least) in which we can talk about humans relating to God’s will.
Many theologians have pointed out that Moses sums this dynamic up well in the covenant renewal ceremony at Sinai. After warning the Israelites of the (likely) judgments they would suffer for their (likely) disobedience, he 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” (Deut. 29:29). It’s almost as if to say, “The future is in God’s hands, though—for now your only concern is to be obedient to what he has openly commanded us.”
Of course, these sorts of distinctions are not without tensions, but I think you can see that none of this is speculative. It’s not about coming up with some perfect idea of God and then shoving it onto the Scriptures to make the verses fit. These are the kinds of distinctions that arise when you try read the narrative of Scripture, the Gospels, the epistles, and especially the story of Jesus as one grand, singular drama with the Lord of Heaven and Earth as the prime (though not sole) Author and character.
So what’s the answer to our question? How are creatures who are sinning relating to the will of God?
Well, in the sense of God’s will of command, they’re obviously being disobedient. What’s more, there is a clear sense in which God hates and is opposed to those things he forbids us. And yet, it’s also clear (in at least those cases listed above) that they’re conforming to God’s will of decree. God could at any time stop, hinder, influence, etc. any of them to do otherwise and yet he does not, so at least in the minimal sense of permission, they are sinning “according to his will.”
It’s important to note that these “wills” are not ultimately at odds, since in God they are angles on one ultimate act of willing. Nor is it inconsistent for God to forbid the human sins God know he will end up incorporating his ultimate plan for all things. This is where the Creator/creature distinction plays a role in reminding us, as Bavinck puts it, that a father may forbid his child to use a sharp knife, though he himself may use it without any harm.
I should say more here, but God’s infinity needs to play a greater role in our thinking in these areas. Far too much theology operates under the assumption that God is simply a much larger version of ourselves. That God must related to creatures and the creation in the same way that we do. We forget that God’s relationship to creation is sui generis, utterly unique.
Evil, Complex Goods, and God’s Will
All the same, it’s not a wild question to ask how could God will to allow evil? Or even ordain and intend it in the case of Joseph at the hand of his brothers, or Christ at the hand of persecutors?
Well, C.S. Lewis has a very helpful passage here in his classic The Problem of Pain where he delineates varieties of goods and evils. In the first place, there are simple goods, unproblematically considered in themselves to be good (ice cream, love, sunsets). Second, there are simple evils (paper cuts, murder, 3rd degree burns). Third, there are “complex goods”, which are packages of events, states of affairs, etc. that contain “simple evils” within them, but which God uses to produce more complex, redemptive goods. The cross and resurrection of Jesus is the prime example of this, but Joseph’s story is as well. And this seems amply demonstrated in Scripture beyond these two.
Now, we must say a few things here.
First, simple evils can be part of complex goods doesn’t mean that—considered in themselves—they don’t remain evil. Cancer, in itself, is evil. Murder, in itself, is evil. Divorce, in itself, is evil. But what these distinctions remind us is that these simple evils take place within a nexus of a broader context that as a total state of affairs cannot be considered unremittingly evil.
Second, the older Reformed theologians were careful to point out that God’s “willing” of simple evils, sins, is not on the same plane, or in the same way as he willed positive goods. Yes, evil only comes about by God’s permission or ordination, but God does not have a “flat” will, so to speak. He only “wills” to permit evil events in a derivative way, as a necessary constituent of complex goods which are the proper object of his good will.
This, incidentally, is why I think it’s a mistake (both theological and pastoral) to speak so straightforwardly or bluntly about God “ordaining” this or that specific instance of evil. Yes, it does have its place somewhere in God’s broader providence because it happened. But very often (indeed, most often) we have absolutely no idea where it fits or why it was included. As such, it is misleading to suggest that God wanted x-event to happen for its own sake. It is wise to remember that “the secret things belong to the Lord.” In any case, we have a great many other doctrines with which to comfort the grieving, so it’s not always pastorally necessary or wise to immediately pull out or doctrine of providence in any given situation. (Though, see Heidelberg Catechism Q& A 26).
Third, some of you may be wondering about my jumping back and forth between the language of “ordination” and “permission.” For many this might seem like impermissible fudging. It might be. But without going into all the distinctions that I probably should, I will simply note that despite Calvin’s criticisms of abuses of the language of “permission”, the majority of the tradition still thought it useful (on this see J. Todd Billings Rejoicing in Lament). This language of permission helps preserve the different ways that God’s preserving activity and causality are involved in human free acts.
God at every moment preserves and sustains all persons, things, acts in existence. In that sense (at least), he is the primary cause of all secondary causes. He is also the primary, non-competitive cause of free causal agents such as humans and angels. But with this in mind, we also want to say that God is positively involved causally in the good acts of creatures, enabling, encouraging, guiding, and so forth. This is essential (though maybe not exhaustive) for not being a reductionist about human freedom and divine sovereignty–recognizing that divine and human agency operate on different levels of being.
At the same time he is involved only negatively, or by a sort of absence, in not restraining the free, sinful acts of fallen humans who tend towards evil without his sustaining activity. It’s sort of like the difference between the Sun being the “cause” of heat directly (by way of proximity) and indirectly the “cause” of cold (by way of distance or a cloud-cover, etc). As Francis Turretin says, “So although sin necessarily follows the decree, it cannot be said to flow from the decree. The decree does not flow into the thing, nor is it effective of evil, but only permissive and directive” (Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 4.4.10).
In that sense, we can speak of this permission of evil acts as a form or a part of God’s ordination of history, as long as we think of this as part of the broader work of God in predestining, creating, preserving, and sustaining all things in order that he might sum them up in Christ (Eph. 1:10).
The Horror of Purposeless Evil
Now, admittedly this is not all easy to swallow. It doesn’t take much imagination to think of any number of horrible events and ask, “Are you saying that God ordained this as part of his will? That it’s part of some greater good? What possible good could come from this? No, to say that this was in any way a part of the eternal plan of God is to justify it and make God complicit with evil and this something we cannot do when we look at Christ. God is entirely only opposed to evil and only ever redemptively works after the fact, fixing what we have broken, but not purposing the break which has absolutely no place in God’s eternal purposes.”
I get this line of thought. Honestly, I do. But I think it fails us for a couple of reasons we have already raised.
First, simply consider the absolute horror of what it would mean for God to have no good purposes or reasons whatsoever for allowing all of the evil that he clearly could stop. Every example of every horrible event that you just came up with, would be totally and utterly pointless in every sense, and yet something God is still responsible for because he could have stopped it.
Because—unless you’re working with a tiny, little mythological Zeus-god—the Triune Creator of heaven and earth could stop each and every act of evil should he desire it; again, either God’s permission is willing or coerced. Assuming it’s not coerced, if he doesn’t stop an act of evil, he either has a good enough reason or purpose for it or not.
On this point even the Arminian and the Calvinist is agreed. It’s only that the Arminian typically appeals to a general good reason or purpose (libertarian free will or libertarian-freely chosen love) and that the Calvinist some more meticulous, specific (though probably unknown) providential purposes. So if you appeal to the mystery of free will which is necessary for love, moral choice, etc. (a venerable move), you’re still saying God had a good enough reason for evil. It’s just happens to be a very, very generic one.
At which point, you have to begin to push further back into and beyond the act of creation. Unless you’re an Open Theist or a Process Theist, you still have to face the fact that God freely created this world with a perfect knowledge of every nook and cranny of sin, evil, and the goods connected to them that would unfold. He willed to create this world and derivatively these evils exist as a part of his providential order. I know there are important distinctions to be made there and I’m glancing over them far too quickly, but the point stands. It’s not only the Reformed Calvinist who must reckon with God’s eternal plan or divine reasons, at this point.
Coming back around, let me just put it this way: many will object that sounds awful, cruel, or crass to tell someone who has suffered the loss of child some pious platitude about how “God had a reason”, or “it’s all a part of God’s plan.” And done crassly, it is. But consider that it is equally awful, if not more so, to crassly say, “Thank God that was pointless”, or “Isn’t it a comfort to know that preventable evil and your suffering were allowed to come to pass for no reason whatsoever? That God stood there, doing nothing, for no purpose at all?”
Unless you can say that God had purposes for his permission of evil, you’re just left with a black hole of the collateral damage of either divine apathy or incompetence.
The Comfort of a Purposeful Cross
Secondly, the “hands-off” view fails us more clearly because we have already seen in Scripture that God ordained, according to his plan and foreknowledge, the very great and glorious salvation of the the human race through the damnable evil of Christ’s crucifiers. God handed the Son over to be betrayed into the hands of sinful men in order to raise him up, justify him and thereby justify us in him.
This was no purposeless evil, then. Nor was the resurrection a happy result of God’s clever ability to turn a frown upside down—it was the center of God’s eternal plan for redemptive history.
My focus on the God’s handing over a Christ to suffer, be crucified, and then rise again is purposeful. It is important for us to know that this is not an abstract or distant will. Scripture is clear that God planned beforehand to sum up all things in Christ (Eph. 1:11), and that he was “foreknown” for this task “from before the foundations of the earth” (1 Peter 1:20). But this is only the case as he is also the “Lamb that was slain before the foundations of the earth” (Rev. 13:8) in order to ransom his people from their sin.
Yes, it was an hour that made the soul of the Son of Man “greatly troubled”, that tempted him to ask, “Father, save me from this hour”, but about which eventually resolved, “for this purpose I have come to this hour” (John 12:27). In this, the Triune God is not immune from his own sovereignty, so to speak. Rather, we see God’s will to “do whatever he wants” most clearly in his willing to be the Father who sends the Son in the power of the Spirit to become incarnate, live under the conditions of a weakness, suffer brutally, die forsaken, and rise again in glory on our behalf.
At the center of the divine will for the history of the cosmos, then, shines the blinding light of God’s self-giving beauty in the face of Christ.
Of course, there are are probably a dozen or so sub-topics I barely grazed in this discussion and so if you’re far from convinced, especially on the difficult issues of freedom and sovereignty, that’s more than reasonable. This is a limited (if absurdly lengthy) blog post. I think some of the resources I pointed to above are good places to go digging (Herman Bavinck, Richard Muller, and especially Todd Billings).
For instance, some will object that none of this proves his ordination of every matter in history. Yes, but I do think it does show that God has ordained, permitted, or purposed at least some. Therefore he can do so in others. And then from there it’s a matter of seeing whether the categories provided seems to present an overall consistent picture with Scripture.
To cap it off, though, for those who find themselves put off by the whole discussion, or disturbed, I’ll simply point out that Calvin himself warned that the one who tries to pry too deeply into God’s secret counsels “plunges headlong into an immense abyss, involves himself in numberless inextricable snares, and buries himself in the thickest darkness.” (Institutes. III.xxiv.4) Instead, it’s best to simply look to Christ, rest in his grace, trust that “although there were wise and holy reasons” for God’s decrees about history, “nevertheless these reasons, though known to him, are not known to us.”
The secret things belong to the Lord, but Christ crucified and risen is what he has revealed to us.
Soli Deo Gloria