Thoughts on the Will of God (1)
Howard A. Barnes, Bromborough, Merseyside
There might be some debate about the identity of the twenty-four elders in the Book of The Revelation, but there can be no argument about what they had to say concerning the purpose of creation, 'O Lord . . . thou hast created all things, and for thy will they were, and they have been created', 4. 11, JND. How this contrasts with what we find around us today in 'the children of disobedience: among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires [the will] of the flesh and of the mind', Eph. 2. 2, 3. People today are busy satisfying the will of their own bodies and minds, to the exclusion of the will of God, just as Eve's sin involved fulfilling the will of her mind and body - 'the tree was to be desired to make one wise', Gen. 3. 6, being also good for food and pleasant to the eyes; hence the mind and body looked for their own satisfaction.
God's will is done in heaven, where all serve Him instantly and without question, but the time is also coming when the model prayer that the Lord Jesus taught His disciples will come true, 'Thy will be clone in earth, as it is in heaven', Matt. 6. 10. Meanwhile, the Christian today is concerned to please God and to do His expressed will. Like David, we should say, 'I delight to do thy will, O my God', Psa. 40. 8; but also, 'Teach me to do thy will; for thou art my God', Psa. 143. 10, because it is not always obvious what the will of God is, and because our own ways are not always His ways, Isa. 55. 8. However, acknowledging that the flesh is always with us, Peter says that the believer 'no longer should live the rest of bis time in the flesh to the lusts of men, but to the will of God', 1 Pet. 4. 2. As we shall see it is not only a matter of 'should' but 'can' as well.
When talking about the will of God, we also read about the things He desires, those things that are 'according to his good pleasure', Eph. 1. 5, 9, because the word used for desires means will. Apart from noting this, we shall not be too concerned here to distinguish the shades of meaning of different words expressing God's will as used in the original Greek text, but a study of such differences - using say, Vine's Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words - would prove useful. Lastly, on the matter of words, It is worth noting that in the Authorised Version we find the word 'will' used as a verb, e.g. Rom. 7. 18; Jas. 4. 15, while we today would say wish or desire; also the word 'would' is used in the same way, as for instance in 1 Corinthians 7. 7, 'For I would that all men were even as I myself.
In considering the will of God, the present writer was greatly helped early in his Christian life by having pointed out to him the difference between the directive and the permissive will of God - some things He makes happen, while other things He allows to happen. Both are unquestionably expressions of His sovereignty in that He and He alone can choose to make things happen or choose to let them happen. The difference between the two is exemplified in considering the following verses. First in Daniel 4. 35 we read, 'All the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing: and he doeth according to his will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth: and none can stay his hand, or say unto him, What doest thou?'. This shows unequivocally that God rules in a general way and that no one has the right to question His decisions. Also, as in Revelation 17. 17, 'For God hath put in their hearts to fulfil his will, and to agree, and give their kingdom unto the beast, until the words of God shall be fulfilled [accomplished, RV]'. In that future day God will cause certain men's minds to unite in accepting the Beast.
Over against this, we must bear in mind (see below for details) that God, while making His wishes known, will allow men to disregard them, as for instance in salvation, where He is seen as the One 'who will [wishes to] have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth', 1 Tim. 2. 4, and 'The Lord [who] . . . is long suffering . . . not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance', 2 Pet 3. 9. Sadly, not all men come unto the knowledge of the truth, or come to repentance. But the sovereign God who allows them not to, even though He can control thinking as seen in the example above when in the coming tribulation He makes certain powerful men accept the Beast, though now He does not make people accept His Son (see also the tower of Siloam below). Hence, God rules, and in His rule He can actively intervene, or He can allow things to happen, but nevertheless, even in doing the latter, He chooses not to interfere, so that either His intrusion or His seeming inaction are both expressions of His sovereignty and will be ultimately to His glory. This point is difficult for us to grasp, especially when we ourselves are personally involved in a situation where we want God to intervene, and nothing happens (see below under PRAYER).
God's will in Salvation
In the question of salvation and the will of God, the gospel message is clear, 'God . . . will [desires to] have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth', 1 Tim. 2. 3, 4, and 'The Lord . . . is long suffering . . . not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance', 2 Pet. 3. 9. His express will is that all should be saved: indeed all can be saved, because when the Lord Jesus died on the cross, He died not for believers' sins only 'but also for the sins of the whole world', 1 John 2. 2. Those who repent and are saved are in the will of God, and thus come within the promise of the Lord Jesus that 'he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever', 1 John 2. 17.
What assurance it is to us that 'it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish', Matt. 18. 14; 'And this is the will of him that sent me, that every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day', John 6. 40. The promise of future resurrection goes along with the purpose of present deliverance from this present evil world, being affected by His death, and all this 'according to the will of God and our Father', Gal. 1. 4. When we 'do the will of my Father which is in heaven', said the Lord Jesus, in believing in the Him, we have His promise that 'the same is my brother, and sister, and mother', Matt. 12. 50.
Whereas we have quoted those scriptures that emphasise the truth of man's responsibility, we must not forget the equally important and balancing truth of divine sovereignty in salvation. This is clear in the statement that 'He hath chosen us in him' and 'predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will', Eph. 1. 4, 5. What sadness it is to see those who accept only the one half of the truth and force-fit all other scriptures into that narrow mould.
God's will in circumstances
As we have seen, God can act actively or seemingly passively, but these are both expressions of His authority. For instance, when the tower that fell down in Siloam and 18 people were killed, Luke 13. 4, God could have intervened and stopped its falling, but He didn't. However, in so many miraculous ways He did intervene, as for instance in the crossing of the Red Sea, Exod. 15. 4, when His timely action saved the nation; this example could of course be multiplied many times. In our acknowledgement of this, we do well to recognize the often-repeated phrases in the scripture similar to 'if the Lord will [wishes]'. In fact, James tells us 'ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that', 4. 15. Paul used the expression with regard to his travel plans, for instance to the Corinthians, 1 Cor. 4. 19, and the Ephesians, Acts 18. 21, 'I will return again unto you, if God will'. This was no empty or repetitious formula: Paul had expressed a similar desire to go to Rome, and twice said that it would only be 'by the will of God', Rom. 1. 10, 15. 32. This had in fact been a matter of prayer for him - 'Making request, if by any means now at length 1 might have a prosperous journey by the will of God to come unto you', 1. 10 - but when it actually came about that he got to Rome, it was not as he had planned, and it was hardly a prosperous or easy journey, but nevertheless God's will had been done in God's way, even though it would not have been Paul's choice of transport and accommodation. In coping with the circumstances that God in His will allows, Paul would have need of patience, as the writer to the Hebrews tells us, 'ye have need of patience, that, after ye have done the will of God, ye might receive the promise', Heb. 10. 36.
Whereas we can be assured that God can intervene and improve the physical circumstances of His people, it is not always His will to do so. In fact, sometimes, rather than easy circumstances being best, 'it is better, if the will of God be so, that ye suffer for well doing, than for evil doing', 1 Pet. 3. 17. Sometimes we can see the purpose of such things, e.g. 'For so is the will of God, that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men', 2. 15. However, for those who suffer, there is the refuge of God Himself - 'Wherefore let them that suffer according to the will of God commit the keeping of their souls to him in well doing, as unto a faithful Creator', 1 Pet. 4. 19.
Our sanctification - the will of God
Practical sanctification is our being set apart for God and separated to God every day, thus being available for His service as meet for the Master's use, 2 Tim. 2. 21. In fact we can say categorically that - 'this is the will of God, even your sanctification, that ye should abstain from fornication', 1 Thess. 4. 3. Being set apart is being different, and in these immoral days in which we live, a clear statement that we should abstain from sexual impurity is sadly very necessary.
Not only is our sanctification according to the will of God, it is in fact one necessary condition for us to know the will of God in our lives. As Paul says, 'be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, [in order] that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God', Rom. 12. 2. Proving or testing our opinion of God's will for us can only be done as we become nonconformist to this world and transformed by the renewing of our minds. We often wonder how we can know the will of God; well, here is some very practical advice. If we don't obey the will of God concerning our sanctification, how can we know the will of God concerning our service. The will of God for us thus discovered can only be good, acceptable and perfect - as judged by the separated man of course - so what more could we ask! Holding such a position without wavering is not easy, and needs all the help available. The prayer of faithful friends is indispensable, as for instance the prayers of Epaphras for the Colossians, of whom Paul said he was 'always labouring fervently for you in prayers, that ye may stand perfect and complete in all the will of God', Col. 4. 12.