God’s Will: Moral Will vs Sovereign Will
Be sure to visit these resources:
- John Piper (Bethlehem Baptist Church): Providence of God series: Part 7, Part 8, Part 9
- Jeffery Mercer (Christ Fellowship of CENLA): The Two Wills of God & The Two Wants of Men sermon
- Jerry Dodson (New Philadephia Presbyterian): The Wills of God sermon
- R.C. Sproul (Ligonier Ministries): The Will of God
- Alistair Begg: Providence Defined sermon
- God’s Sovereign Will Aligns with His Moral Will
- God’s Sovereign Will Conflicts with His Moral Will
Can God’s Will be rejected or frustrated?
If God really does ultimately control all things, including the attitudes, beliefs, actions, and circumstances of people – then why do we see some passages of scripture that suggest that his desires do not always come to pass?
The answer is Yes and No. It depends on what which sense of God’s will is being referenced. Sometimes we read that God desires something to be one way, but then that doesn’t happen. Sometimes God even causes something to occur that seemingly contradicts a prior commandment.
God wills things that do not happen.
For example, passages like 1 Timothy 2:3-4, 2 Peter 3:9, and Ezekiel 18:23,32 give us a picture of a God who wants all to come to him, repent, and believe. However, not everyone does.
1 TIMOTHY 2:3-4
“This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”
2 PETER 3:9
“The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”
“Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?… For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live.”
Is this proof that people can go against God’s will? Some would say it is. However, as we keep reading through scripture, the issue becomes more complex.
Two Different “Wills” of God
1. God’s Moral Will
His moral will (AKA “preferential will”, “revealed will”, “preceptive will”, or “will of command”) refers to what God asks or demands of us. An example of this would be the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1–17) or the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19). Think: “don’t murder”, “preach the gospel”, “baptize”, “come unto me”, or “pray like this…”
2. God’s Sovereign Will
God’s sovereign will (other theological names include: “will of decree”, “decretive will”, “efficacious will”, “determinate will”, “absolute will”, “hidden will”, or “secret will”) refers to God’s ultimate sovereign control over something that takes place. Examples of this sense of the word in the Bible include times when someone is killed, blinded to the truth, made stubborn, or caused to sin by God. It seems that God’s sovereign will can often conflict with his moral will.
God’s Moral Will and Sovereign Will Work Together
Exhibit A: Paul’s Letters to Timothy & Knowledge of the Truth
In Paul’s first letter to Timothy, he says that God desires everyone to be saved and to come to know the truth. Then, with an almost identical statement in his second letter, he tells Timothy that when we act publicly with kindness, patience, and gentleness, that God may grant unbelievers repentance (necessary for salvation) and knowledge of the truth. That is, God desires them to know him and he may also cause them to know him. In this case, his moral will (preference) and his sovereign will (causation) align.
|God “desires” all to come…||God may cause them to come….|
|“…who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” – 1 Timothy 2:4||“…God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth,” – 2 Timothy 2:25|
Exhibit B: Abraham and Abimelech
For better or worse, Abraham makes the decision to tell the king that his wife was actually his sister. Thinking that she was not married, the king took her, but had not yet approached her sexually. We find out that this abstinence from sexual sin was not to Abimelech’s credit, but rather, to God’s ultimate control over the situation. So here again we see God’s sovereign will in accord with his preferential will.
|“Don’t have sex with his wife…”||“I kept you from having sex with his wife…”|
|“You shall not commit adultery… you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife…” – Exodus 20:14,17||“… it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her.” – Genesis 20:6|
God’s Moral Will and Sovereign Will Often Conflict
Exhibit A: The Murder of the Messiah
Clearly, God does not want us to commit murder and even orders us not to. At the same time, he can cause us to murder. That is, he can cause us to disobey his commandments. In the case of the crucifixion of Jesus, Peter and Isaiah taught that God not only allowed for Christ to be murdered, but made it come to pass. Peter names the various guilty parties and describes them as being part of God’s God’s “definite plan”. Isaiah declares God as the one who “smote” and “crushed” Jesus – meaning that the earthly men responsible were working by the hand of God.
God’s sovereign will (causing people to murder his son) directly opposed his moral will (commandment to not murder).
|“Don’t Murder.”||“Murder Him.”|
|“You shall not murder.” – Exodus 20:13“You shall not murder.” – Deuteronomy 5:17See also: Matt 5:21, 1 John 3:15, Leviticus 24: 17||“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“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“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted… Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.” Isaiah 53:4,10“For the Son of Man goes as it has been determined, but woe to that man by whom he is betrayed!” – Luke 22:22“And Jesus said to them, ‘You will all fall away, for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’” – Mark 14:27|
Exhibit B: Pharaoh’s Evil Stubborness
God repeatedly commanded Pharaoh to free the Hebrew people. At the same time, God was forcing Pharaoh to reject these commandments. It was God’s will for the Hebrews to be set free but it was also his will for them to remain enslaved. God’s moral will (for his people to be freed) was in direct opposition to his sovereign will (ensuring his people were not freed).
|“Let my people go.”||“Don’t let my people go.”|
|“Afterward Moses and Aaron went and said to Pharaoh, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness.’” – Exodus 5:1“And you shall say to him, ‘The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, sent me to you, saying, “Let my people go, that they may serve me in the wilderness.” But so far, you have not obeyed.” – Exodus 7:16“Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Go in to Pharaoh and say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord, ‘Let my people go, that they may serve me.’” – Exodus 8:1See also: Exodus 8:20-21, 9:1, 9:13, 10:3-4||“He turned their hearts to hate his people,|
to deal craftily with his servants.” – Psalm 105:25“And the Lord said to Moses, ‘When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in your power. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go.’” – Exodus 4:21″But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt,” – Exodus 7:3“But when Pharaoh saw that there was a respite, he hardened his heart and would not listen to them, as the Lord had said.” – Exodus 8:15See also: Exodus 7:13-22, 8:19-32, 9:7-35, 10:1-27, 11:10, 14:4-17
Exhibit C: A Command to Israel
God’s will was for Israel to come to him, but his will was also for them to not come to him. God’s preferential will for them to have eyes to see, ears to hear was in direct conflict with his sovereign will. God intentionally kept Israel from living out his will for them.
|God: “Israel, Look, Listen, and Understand.”||Moses: “Israel, God has not allowed you to see, hear, or understand.”|
|“Hear, you deaf; look, you blind, and see!” – Isaiah 42:18||“With your own eyes you saw those great trials, those signs and great wonders. But to this day the Lord has not given you a mind that understands or eyes that see or ears that hear.” – Deuteronomy 29:3-4|
Exhibit D: Jesus’ Call to Repent
Jesus’s will was for all to come to him and be saved. However, he also purposefully spoke in a way so that people would not understand the gospel and come to repentance. God’s preferential will is again at odds with his own sovereign will.
|Jesus: “Repent and believe.”||Jesus: “I speak in parables so they won’t repent.”|
|“‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’” – Mark 1:15||“He told them, ‘The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, ‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’” – Mark 4:11-12See also: Matthew 13:13|
Exhibit F: Sinful Sons of Eli
Although God told the Israelites to obey his commandments as well as the guidance of their parents, Eli’s sons were kept from doing this by God. The “for” in this verse is important. The evil sons would not listen to their father’s call to repent FOR or BECAUSE it God’s plan was to punish them.
|God: “Listen to your father, obey my commandments.”||God: “I will not let you listen or obey.”|
|“You shall stand up before the gray head and honor the face of an old man, and you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.” – Leviticus 19:32“Honor your father and your mother…” – Exodus 20:12See also: Ephesians 6:1-2, Colossians 3:20, Deuteronomy 5:16, Leviticus 19:3“You shall serve the Lord your God,…” – Exodus 23:25“And now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the rules that I am teaching you, and do them, that you may live, and go in and take possession of the land that the Lord, the God of your fathers, is giving you.” – Deuteronomy 4:1See also: Leviticus 22:31, Numbers 15:40, Deuteronomy 5:29||“…they lay with the women who were serving at the entrance to the tent of meeting. And he said to them, ‘Why do you do such things? For I hear of your evil dealings from all these people. No, my sons; it is no good report that I hear the people of the Lord spreading abroad.’… But they would not listen to the voice of their father, for it was the will of the Lord to put them to death.” – Deuteronomy 29:3-4|
Exhibit G: Joseph’s Brothers
There were a lot of sins involved in the treatment of Joseph. From his brothers to Potiphar, many commandments were broken to put Joseph from being a little brother to becoming Egypt’s elite. It all becomes clear in Genesis 50, when Joseph comforts his brothers by saying, “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good”. That is, the “it” that God “meant” or “intended” was their sin. God planned and purposefully determined that Jacob’s brothers would commit these sins.
|God:”Don’t lie, murder, steal, or envy.”||God:”Be jealous, plot to kill, steal, lie.”|
|“You shall not murder.” – Exodus 20:13“You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; you shall not lie to one another.” – Leviticus 19:11See also: Deuteronomy 5:17, 1 Peter 2:1, Galatians 5:26, Mark 7:20-23||“But Joseph said to them, ‘Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? 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.’ ” – Genesis 50:19-20|
Read more: Genesis 37:18-34