Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Messing Up The Wills of God

Theologians (especially in the Reformed tradition) have found it helpful to distinguish between the Decretive Will of God and the Preceptive Will of God.1 The decretive will refers to God’s having decreed, for his own glory by his sovereign power and according to his infinite wisdom, all that comes to pass. The preceptive will refers to God’s revealed commands to his human creation. The first describes what God has done, is doing, and will do; the second, what God wants us to do. The first is generally secret, which is why we also call it his Secret Will. The second is revealed; hence we also call it his Revealed Will. Sometimes we also distinguish between these as the Will of Decree and Will of Command. The first is absolute and inexorable--it cannot not happen. The second is disregarded every time one of his creatures chooses to disobey him.

Although we sometimes say that the decretive will of God is hidden or secret (Isaiah 55:8-9; Deuteronomy 29:29; Romans 11:33-36), this does not mean that God has left us completely blind concerning his eternal purposes. God has not revealed everything, but he has revealed as much as he wants us to know in his Word. We know the big picture and many of the smaller details. Certain mysteries have been made crystal clear by glorious glimpses into his Secret Will through Scripture. For instance, we know the purpose of the incarnation and the crucifixion. We know that God planned all along to bring Gentiles into his chosen family through adoption. These were concepts hidden in the shadows of the Old Testament--they are definitely there, but were not as easy to see without the light of the New Testament. The New Testament has brought those mysteries out of the shadows and made them crystal clear. God has also given us bright glimpses in Scripture of what everything will look like in the end according to his sovereign decree: He will destroy evil, punish sinners, and bring his family into eternal fellowship with him in the new heavens and earth. He has told us about the doctrine of election, even though he has not told us who among all the lost are elect. The Secret Will is more or less revealed as God has seen fit to give us gracious glimpses into his purposes. Regardless, we can know all that he has revealed to the extent he has revealed it.

That Mysterious Third Will

What does not exist in Scripture is a third, unnamed will, which I will call the “Third Will.” The “Third Will” supposedly exists somewhere between the Revealed and Secret, barely perceivable only by those who are spiritually tuned in, like a whispering undertone within the consciousness--a still, small voice. It requires a high degree of mystical harmonization and threatens great penalties upon those who fail to accurately perceive or obey it: Those who do not find God’s will are at risk of missing God’s will for their lives.

This spiritually destructive view of God's will runs rampant due to unchecked Arminian influences upon many evangelical churches. It presupposes some violable plan not otherwise revealed in Scripture that exists as some mix of the Secret and the Revealed. It is often described as “God’s best for you.” The process of learning it is sometimes called “discerning God’s will.” Young people in these traditions are taught from an early age that one of the most important things they can do in life is discern God’s will (as if teenagers don’t have a hard enough time with everything that is clearly revealed).

Belief in this "Third Will" leads many to unbiblical assertions and unnecessary anxieties. We have all seen it in action. You have seen it when someone has said something like, “I just knew God was telling me to do such-and-such” or “God told me everything was going to be alright” or "I have finally found what God wants me to do with my life!" You may even have fallen for it yourself!

In my younger years, my experience with this mystical "Third Will" led me to spend countless hours trying to “read the clouds” for God’s will--listening for that still, small voice and searching my heart for a sense of peace. I even measured my spirituality (and others’) by how attuned I was to God’s “leading” through the Holy Spirit. One of my greatest fears was doing something wrong and shutting off my mystical pipeline, leaving me blind in the dark. I imagined that God had a will about nearly anything and everything (which shirt to wear, road to take, college to attend, job to take, person to marry, etc.). Failure to discern and act upon this will would lead me down the wrong path and mess things up. At one point, my future wife and I even fearfully broke off our engagement because of some nebulous “lack of peace” that I presumed was integral to the process of “discerning God’s will.” Thankfully God rescued me from myself and we eventually got married, Praise be to God!

Scripture simply does not support this idea of a “Third Will” that all Christians must discern and obey. Yes, it records that God directed people through miraculous, extra-biblical means; however it nowhere presents these means as normative. Those who believe that God does have a mystic “Third Will” need to demonstrate 1) that it is clearly taught in Scripture 2) to whom it applies, 3) by what verifiable means it is discerned, and 4) to what decisions it applies and does not apply. That is a tall order which I believe cannot be accomplished through any clear teaching of Scripture.

1 Some have suggested that this distinction under the category of will is not helpful, and that these distinct topics should be treated separately. However, I believe the discussion and distinction is pedagogically necessary because the error is in the end user's equivocation of the abiding English word for will.

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