The Will of God

A. The Meaning of the Term

If God is a spirit He must possess all the essential attributes of a spirit. Those attributes, according to the classification adopted by the older philosophers and theologians, fall under the heads of intelligence and will. To the former, are referred knowledge and wisdom; to the latter, the power of self-determination, efficiency (in the case of God, omnipotence), and all moral attributes. In this wide sense of the word, the will of God includes: (1.) The will in the narrow sense of the word. (2.) His power. (3.) His love and all his moral perfections. In our day, generally but not always, the word “will” is limited to the faculty of self-determination. And even the older theologians in treating of the will of God treat only of his decrees or purposes. In their definitions, however, they take the word in its wide sense. Thus Calovius1 says, “Voluntas Dei est, qua Deus tendit in bonum ab intellectu cognitum.” And Quenstedt defines it as “ipsa Dei essentia cum connotatione inclinationis ad bonum concepta.”2 Turrettin says, the object of the intellect is the true; the object of the will, the good. Hence it is said, that God wills Himself necessarily, and all things out of Himself freely. Although the word seems to be taken in different senses in the same sentence, God’s willing Himself means that He takes complacency in his own infinite excellence; his willing things out of Himself, means his purpose that they should exist. Although the theologians start with the wide definition of the word, yet in the prosecution of the subject they regard the will as simply the faculty of self-determination, and the determinations themselves. That is, the power to will, and volitions or purposes. It is altogether better to confine the word to this its proper meaning, and not make it include all the forms of feeling involving approbation or delight.

God then as a spirit is a voluntary agent. We are authorized to ascribe to Him the power of self-determination. This the Bible everywhere does. From the beginning to the end, it speaks of the will of God, of his decrees, purposes, counsels, and commands. The will is not only an essential attribute of our spiritual being, but it is the necessary condition of our personality. Without the power of rational self-determination we should be as much a mere force as electricity, or magnetism, or the principle of vegetable life. It is, therefore, to degrade God below the sphere of being which we ourselves occupy, as rational creatures, to deny to Him the power of self-determination; of acting or not acting, according to his own good pleasure.

B. The freedom of the Divine Will

The will of God is free in the highest sense of the word. An agent is said to be free, (1.) When he is at liberty to act or not to act, according to his good pleasure. This is liberty in acting. (2.) He is free as to his volitions, when they are determined by his own sense of what is wise, right, or desirable.

Freedom is more than spontaneity. The affections are spontaneous, but are not free. Loving and hating, delighting in and abhorring, do not depend upon the will.

God is free in acting, as in creating and preserving, because these acts do not arise from the necessity of his nature. He was free to create or not create; to continue the universe in existence or to cause it to cease to be. He is free also in keeping his promises, because his purpose so to do is determined by his own infinite goodness. It is indeed inconceivable that God should violate his word. But this only proves that moral certainty may be as inexorable as necessity.

C. The Decretive and Preceptive Will of God

The decretive will of God concerns his purposes, and relates to the futurition of events. The preceptive will relates to the rule of duty for his rational creatures. He decrees whatever he purposes to effect or to permit. He prescribes, according to his own will, what his creatures should do, or abstain from doing. The decretive and preceptive will of God can never be in conflict. God never decrees to do, or to cause others to do, what He forbids. He may, as we see He does, decree to permit what He forbids. He permits men to sin, although sin is forbidden. This is more scholastically expressed by the theologians by saying, A positive decretive will cannot consist with a negative preceptive will; i.e., God cannot decree to make men sin. But a negative decretive will may consist with an affirmative preceptive will; e. g., God may command men to repent and believe, and yet, for wise reasons, abstain from giving them repentance.

The distinction between voluntas beneplaciti et signi, as those terms are commonly used, is the same as that between the decretive and preceptive will of God. The one referring to his decrees, founded on his good pleasure; the other to his commands, founded on what He approves or disapproves.

By the secret will of God, is meant his purposes, as still hidden in his own mind; by his revealed will, his precepts and his purposes, as far as they are made known to his creatures.

D. Antecedent and Consequent Will

These terms, as used by Augustinians, have reference to the relation of the decrees to each other. In the order of nature the end precedes the means, and the purpose of the former is antecedent to the purpose of the latter. Thus it is said, that God by an antecedent will, determined on the manifestation of his glory; and by a consequent will, determined on the creation of the world as a means to that end.

By Lutherans and Remonstrants these terms are used in a very different sense. According to their views, God by an antecedent will determined to save all men; but, foreseeing that all would not repent and believe, by a subsequent will He determined to save those whom he foresaw would believe. That is, He first purposed one thing and then another.

E. Absolute and Conditional Will

These terms, when employed by Augustinians, have reference not so much to the purposes of God, as to the events which are decreed. The event, but not the purpose of God, is conditional. A man reaps, if he sows. He is saved, if he believes. His reaping and salvation are conditional events. But the purpose of God is absolute. If He purposes that a man shall reap, He purposes that he shall sow; if He purposes that he shall be saved, He purposes that he shall believe. Anti-Augustinians, on the other hand, regard the purposes of God as conditional. He purposes the salvation of a man, if he believes. But whether he believes or not, is left undetermined; so that the purpose of God is suspended on a condition not under his control, or, at least, undecided. A father may purpose to give an estate to his son, if he be obedient; but whether the son will fulfil the condition is undetermined, and’ therefore the purpose of the father is undecided. It is, however, manifestly inconsistent with the perfection of God, that He should first will one thing and then another; nor can his purposes be dependent on the uncertainty of human conduct or events. These are questions, however, which belong to the consideration of the doctrine of decrees. They are mentioned here because these distinctions occur in all discussions concerning the Divine Will, with which the student of theology should be familiar.

In this place it is sufficient to remark, that the Greek word θέλω, and the corresponding English verb, to will, sometimes express feeling, and sometimes a purpose. Thus in Matt. 27:43, the words εἰ θέλει αὐτόν are correctly rendered, “if he delight in him.” Comp. Ps. 22:8. It is in this sense the word is used, when it is said that God wills all men to be saved. He cannot be said to purpose or determine upon any event which is not to come to pass. A judge may will the happiness of a man whom he sentences to death. He may will him not to suffer when he wills him to suffer. The infelicity in such forms of expression is that the word “will” is used in different senses. In one part of the sentence it means desire, and in the other purpose. It is perfectly consistent, therefore, that God, as a benevolent Being, should desire the happiness of all men, while he purposes to save only his own people.

F. The Will of God as the Ground of Moral Obligation

The question on this subject is, Whether things are right or wrong, simply because God commands or forbids them? Or, does He command or forbid them, because they are right or wrong for some other reason than his will? According to some, the only reason that a thing is right, and therefore obligatory, is, that it tends to promote the greatest happiness, or the greatest good of the universe. According to others, a thing is right which tends to promote our own happiness; and for that reason, and for that reason alone, it is obligatory. If vice would make us happier than virtue, we should be bound to be vicious. It is a more decorous mode of expressing substantially the same theory, to say that the ground of moral obligation is a regard to the dignity of our own nature. It makes little difference whether it be our own dignity, or our own happiness, which we are bound to regard. It is self, in either case, to whom our whole allegiance is due. Others, again, place the ground of moral obligation in the fitness of things, which they exalt above God. There is, they affirm, an eternal and necessary difference between right and wrong, to which God, it is said, is as much bound to be conformed as are his rational creatures.

The common doctrine of Christians on this subject is, that the will of God is the ultimate ground of moral obligation to all rational creatures. No higher reason can be assigned why anything is right than that God commands it. This means, (1.) That the divine will is the only rule for deciding what is right and what is wrong. (2.) That his will is that which binds us, or that to which we are bound to be conformed. By the word “will” is not meant any arbitrary purpose, so that it were conceivable that God should will right to be wrong, or wrong right. The will of God is the expression or revelation of his nature, or is determined by it; so that his will, as revealed, makes known to us what infinite wisdom and goodness demand. Sometimes things are right simply because God has commanded them; as circumcision, and other ritual institutions were to the Jews. Other things are right because of the present constitution of things which God has ordained; such as the duties relating to property, and the permanent relations of society. Others, again, are right because they are demanded by the immutable excellence of God. In all cases, however, so far as we are concerned, it is his will that binds us, and constitutes the difference between right and wrong; his will, that is, as the expression of his infinite perfection. So that the ultimate foundation of moral obligation is the nature of God.

1  Systema Socorum Theolog corum, tom. ii. cap. 9; Wittenberg, 1656, p. 439.
2  Theologia, x. viii. § 1, xxvii. p. 418.

Hodge, C. (1997). Systematic theology. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

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