In recent years, we keep hearing the phrases “God’s absolute will” and “God’s permissive will”, often heard in charismatic circles, not so often in presbyterian (Calvinistic) congregations. Do we really know what it is all about, or do we simply accept whatever is taken for granted as truth because it is preached by some very persuasive and eloquent speakers who seem to know what they are talking about?
Let us spend some time studying the concept of “God’s will”. Does it, as implied by the two phrases “absolute” and “permissive”, mean that God has two wills (which may be contradictory to one another)?
One example is the statement of God “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pet 3:9), yet the Bible also says that people do perish and go to hell. Those who propose the concept of absolute and permissive wills say that it is God’s absolute will that all are saved, but if you choose to disobey, you fall into his permissive will and you might go to hell.
Another example is the so-called “Replacement Theology”, which basically deals with the idea that Israel was in the absolute will of God, but having failed Him, moved into His permissive will while the Church was instituted to carry on the mission. This subject is dealt with in a separate section under the Book of Revelation.
A more down-to-earth example in which the phrases are used is in the selection of jobs. For example, if God “wants” you to be an engineer, but you proceed to become a doctor, you are deemed to have strayed from God’s absolute will and into His permissive will.
If this reasoning is taken to its logical conclusion, it implies one of two things about God’s nature:
Either He does not know what decision you will take, or else, He is not consistent and unchanging.
Now, we know that neither of the two conclusions are true about God. The Bible says that God is omniscient (all knowing)(Heb. 4:13), and forever unchanging (Mal. 3:6). So, how can we arrive at either of the two conclusions? Either we have to bend (or discard) the Bible to fit the conclusion, or else, the premise that God has two wills is untenable.
Generalizing broadly, Christians who adhere to the theory of “absolute” and “permissive” wills are more often than not Americans, and congregations influenced by US-based preachers and writers. The increasing impact of charismatic revivals, especially in the 20th century, has led to the spread and acceptance of the “two wills” concept.
I am not anti-charismatic or anti-American. I am an evangelical charismatic myself, and believe in the existence and practice of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. However, with revival should come temperance, and a solid foundation in the Bible on what we do and practice. When we cannot reconcile what we practice with what is written in the Bible, it should be our practice that should be abandoned, not the Word of God. Neither should we distort or twist the Bible to fit or explain our practice. Experience should never take precedence over the Word of God. One example of a relatively recent experiential movement is the so-called “Toronto Blessing”, a subject which is dealt with appropriately by David Pawson in his book “Is the Blessing Biblical?” I will not discuss that subject here, but the gist is that David Pawson compares the practice with the Bible, and draws the appropriate conclusions. That is how we will be discussing the subject at hand - the “absolute” and “permissive” wills of God.
Taking the matter up again, I would like to illustrate the problem of understanding God’s will with two cases in point. The first deals with death and healing, the second with marriage.
In the first case, a terminally ill person receives prayers for healing, with the laying on of hands and the accompanying quotes from the Bible concerning faith, healing, gifts, assurance of recovery, etc. However, contrary to expectations, the person dies. How do the ministers explain the situation? Some have said that it is the “absolute will” of God that the person be healed (quoting the relevant Biblical passages in support of it), but that the person either did not have enough faith in God, or actually chose to die, and thus fell into the “permissive will” of God, i.e. he could not fulfill God’s absolute will for him because he did not have enough faith. Some others, in trying to reconcile the apparent contradiction between assurance of prayer and the eventual outcome, have even rationalised that death is the final “healing”.
In the second case, Andrew was supposed to marry Betty, according to God’s “absolute will”. This was supposed to bring him ultimate blessings in marriage because “God knows best”. However, Andrew chose to marry Carol. In so doing, Andrew “disobeyed” God and left His “absolute will”, instead moving into God’s “permissive will”. God allowed that marriage, but Andrew and Carol will not enjoy the maximum benefits of marriage because it was not intended for them to get married to each other in the first place. This is how some ministers will interpret the situation (especially if Andrew and Carol’s marriage goes on the rocks sometime in the future). However, this line of reasoning does not take into account of Betty. How about poor Betty? Is she going to miss out on the “absolute will” of God (and all the attendant blessings) simply because of the free will and choice of someone else (i.e. Andrew) beyond her control? This certainly does not fit the picture of a fair and just God. Does it also mean that God did not know that Betty would not be able to fulfill His “absolute will” for her through Andrew, and because of Andrew’s disobedience, God will now have to enact a new “absolute will” for Betty in order to be fair to her? (This logic is almost similar to the “Replacement Theology” situation mentioned above).
Faced with such situations, rather than admit to the rigid doctrine of Calvinism (who in their eyes look suspiciously like the fatalism of Muslims who say “in’shAllah” (it is the will of God)), charismatic preachers and itinerant ministers (though by no means only them) trying to explain “theologically” what they cannot understand. With a shallow understanding of theology, the result is the “absolute” and “permissive” wills theory which allows for the above situations to occur without impinging on the status of God (or does it?). In actual practice, it ends up in instances like the no-loose prayer - “we pray such and such will happen ...if it is the will of God”, which is the spiritual equivalent of a cop-out. If the event happens, we have prayed the “absolute will” of God. If it does not occur, then “permissive will” takes over.
Enough of digressions and illustrations. We now come to the main intent of this discussion, which is, the theology of God’s Will. Now, how do we deal with the issue at hand - what is God’s Will? To do so, we need to know what is God like, what is God’s Nature, and then, what is God’s Plan.
What God Is Like
Oftentimes, when we talk about God’s “absolute” and “permissive” wills, we do so in the connotation or presumption that God’s will is conditional upon our response, that He needs us. We forget that God is God, and He is independent of His creation. While God is independent in the sense of not needing anything else for his existence, this is not to say that he is aloof, indifferent, or unconcerned. God relates to us, but it is by his choice that he thus relates, not because he is compelled by some need. That he does so relate to us is therefore so much the more a cause for glorifying him. He has acted and continues to act out of agape, unselfish love, rather than out of need.
God’s very nature is to exist. It is not necessary for him to will his own existence. For God not to exist would be logically contradictory. If God is as he is described in Scripture, he must exist. A proper understanding of this aspect of God's nature should free us from the idea that God needs us. God has chosen to use us to accomplish his purposes, and in that sense he now needs us. He could, however, if he so chose, have bypassed us. He could simply have been without us; and he can, if he chooses, accomplish his purposes without us. It is to our gain that he permits us to know and serve him, and it is our loss if we reject that opportunity. Sometimes we hear expressions of what might be referred to as the "poor God" syndrome: if God does not alter his ways and treat us differently, he will lose us, to his great deprivation. But God does not need us. He is not fortunate to have us; it is we who are the fortunate and favoured ones.
We live in a world of contingency. So much of what we know and believe is conditioned by the word “if”. We will live another ten years, if our health does not fail. We will retire in comfort, if our investments do not fade. We will be safe, if the defences of our government do not fail. We will enjoy the fellowship of our friends, if something does not happen to them. We will get to our next appointment, if our car does not break down. But with God it is different. There is no "if" attached here. There is no need to say, "God will be, if...." God is and will be, period! There is one sure thing, and that is that there is a God and there always will be.
If there is no “ifs” as far as God is concerned, why then should there a situation where God’s will is executed “if” we respond in one way, and not “if” we respond in another way? This question brings us to the next aspect of God - His nature. God is infinite. This means not only that God is unlimited, but that he is unlimitable. In this respect, God is unlike anything we experience. When we say God is infinite, three terms often come into mind - “Omniscience” or “all knowing”; “Omnipotent” or “all powerful/capable”; and “Omnipresent”. The Omnipresence of God is discussed in another section. What concerns us here when we talk about God’s will is whether God knows what is going to happen - His nature of Omniscience; and His ability to carry out His will - His nature of Omnipotence. If God knows everything and is able to carry out anything, why then does He have two wills - absolute and permissive? Again, as in the discussion on God’s Omnipresence, in order to better understand the “Omniscience” and “Omnipotence” of God, we need to go back to the beginning, to a proper study of our understanding of God - i.e. Theology. We will deal with the question of God’s Will in two parts - firstly, on God’s Nature - His Omniscience and Omnipotence; and secondly, on God’s Plan.
The Omniscience of God
When we talk about the Omnipresence of God, we think of God's infinity in relation to space. Here, when we discuss about the Omniscience of God, we would do well to think of God’s infinity in relation to time and knowledge.
The Infinity of God in Relation to Time
God is infinite in relation to time. Time does not apply to him. He was before time began. The question, “How old is God?” is simply inappropriate. He is no older now than a year ago, for infinity plus one is no more than infinity. He simply is not restricted by the dimension of time.
God is the one who always is (Ex.3:11-15). He was, he is, he will be. Psalm 90:1-2 says, "Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations. Before the mountains were born, or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God." Jude 25 says, "To the only God our Saviour be glory, majesty, power, and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore." A similar thought is found in Ephesians 3:21. The use of expressions such as "the first and the last" and the "Alpha and Omega" serve to convey the same idea (Isa. 44:6; Rev. 1:8; 21:6; 22:13).
God is timeless. He does not grow or develop. There are no variations in his nature at different points within his existence. The interests, knowledge, activities, and even personalities of humans change from childhood to youth to adulthood to old age. With God there is no such change, however. He has always been what he is.
The fact that God is not bound by time does not mean that he is not conscious of the succession of points of time. He knows what is now occurring in human experience. He is aware that events occur in a particular order. Yet he is equally aware of all points of that order simultaneously. This transcendence over time has been likened to a person who sits on a steeple while he watches a parade. He sees all parts of the parade at the different points on the route rather than only what is going past him at the moment. He is aware of what is passing each point of the route. So God also is aware of what is happening, has happened, and will happen at each point in time. Yet at any given point within time he is also conscious of the distinction between what is now occurring, what has been, and what will be."
There is a successive order to the acts of God and there is a logical order to his decisions, yet there is no temporal order to his willing. His deliberation and willing take no time. He has from all eternity determined what he is now doing. Thus his actions are not in any sense reactions to developments. He does not get taken by surprise or have to formulate contingency plans. The theology of hope has stressed the transcendence of God over time by thinking of him primarily as the God of the future. While there has been a tendency in traditional theology to think of God in terms of past events, the theology of hope emphasizes what he will be and do.
The Infinity of God in Relation to Knowledge
The infinity of God may also be considered with respect to objects of knowledge. His understanding has no limit (Psa. 147:5). The writer of Proverbs says that the eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good (Prov. 15:3). Jesus said that not a sparrow can fall to the ground without the Father's will (Matt. 10:29), and that even the hairs of the disciples' heads are all numbered (v. 30). Hebrews 4:13 says that "Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account." We are all completely transparent before God. He sees and knows us totally. He knows every truth, even those not yet discovered by man, for it was he who built them into the creation. And he therefore knows every genuine possibility, even when they seem limitless in number.
A further factor, in the light of this knowledge, is the wisdom of God. By this is meant that God acts in the light of all of the facts and in fight of correct values. Knowing all things, God knows what is good. In Romans 11:33 Paul eloquently assesses God's knowledge and wisdom: "Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgements and his paths beyond tracing out!" The psalmist describes God's works as having all been made in wisdom (Psa. 104:24).
When we humans act, we sometimes act unwisely simply because we do not have all the facts. Later developments may prove our actions to have been unwise. Had we known certain relevant facts, we would undoubtedly have acted differently. We may choose to drive on a road which appears to be in excellent condition, unaware that it deteriorates further ahead. Sometimes our perspective is distorted or limited. Optical illusions are an example, as is a photograph taken of someone whose feet were nearer the camera than was the rest of his body. The photograph makes the person appear to have gigantic feet. In addition, lack of experience may cause erroneous actions or decisions. A child, for example, if given the choice of a 50-cent coin or a $1 coin, will often take the 50-cent coin, simply because it is larger.
God, however, has access to all information. So his judgements are made wisely. He never has to revise his estimation of something because of additional information. He sees all things in their proper perspective; thus he does not give anything a higher or lower value than what it ought to have. One can therefore pray confidently, knowing that God will not grant something that is not good. Even though we are not wise enough to see all of the facts, or the results to which our ideas or planned actions may lead, we can trust God to know what is best.
The Omnipotence of God
Finally, God's infinity may also be considered in relationship to what is traditionally referred to as the omnipotence of God. By this we mean that God is able to do all things which are proper objects of his power. This is taught in Scripture in several ways. There is evidence of God's unlimited power in one of his names, El Shaddai. When God appeared to Abraham to reaffirm his covenant, he identified himself by saying, "I am God Almighty" (Gen. 17:1). We also see God's omnipotence in his overcoming apparently insurmountable problems. In Genesis 18:10-14, for example, we read of God's promise that Sarah would have a son, even though she was past the age of childbirth. This promise had been given twenty-five years earlier, and it had not yet been fulfilled. When Sarah heard the promise again, she laughed. The Lord responded, "Why did Sarah laugh, and say, 'Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the Lord?" Similarly, the promise in Jeremiah 32:15 that fields will once again be bought and sold in Judah seems incredible in view of the impending fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians. Jeremiah's faith, however, is strong: "Ah Sovereign Lord! ... Nothing is too hard for you" (v. 17). And after speaking of how hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God, Jesus responds to his disciples' question as to who can then be saved: "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible" (Matt. 19:26).
This power of God is manifested in several different ways. References to the power of God over nature are common, especially in the Psalms, often with an accompanying statement about God's having created the whole universe. In biblical times this power over nature was frequently demonstrated in miracles - from the birth of Isaac, the plagues in Egypt, and the floating axhead in the time of Elisha (2 Kings 6:5-7), to the nature miracles of Jesus, such as stilling the storm (Mark 4:35-41) and walking on the water (Matt. 14:22-33). God's power is also evident in his control of the course of history. Paul spoke of God, that "he determined the times set for them, and the exact places where they should live" for all peoples (Acts 17:26). Perhaps most amazing in many ways is God's power in human life and personality. The real measure of divine power is not the ability of God to create or to lift a large rock. In many ways, changing human personality is more difficult. Whereas giant machinery can accomplish extraordinary types of physical work, it is not so easy to alter human nature. Yet, with respect to salvation Jesus said, "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible" (Matt. 19:26). We never need despair out of a belief that it is impossible to change human nature, whether our own or that of others, because God can work effectively in even this area.
What all of this means is that God's will is never frustrated. What he chooses to do, he accomplishes, for he has the ability to do it. Psalm 115:3 says to the unbelievers, "Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him." Three elements must be present if we are to accomplish an ethical action. There must be the knowledge of what is to be done, the will to do it, and the ability to do what we have purposed. We may fail at any of these points. We may not know what is the right thing to do, or may know it but not choose to do it, or may know and choose it, but be unable to do it. However, three factors of God's nature always come together to produce correct action: he is wise, so that he knows what to do; he is good, and thus he chooses to do the right; he is powerful, and therefore is capable of doing what he wills to do.
There are, however, certain qualifications of this all-powerful character of God. He cannot arbitrarily do anything whatsoever that we may conceive of. He can do only those things which are proper objects of his power. Thus, he cannot do the logically absurd or contradictory. He cannot make square circles or triangles with four corners. He cannot undo what happened in the past, although he may wipe out its effects or even the memory of it. He cannot act contrary to his nature - he cannot be cruel or unconcerned. He cannot fail to do what he has promised. In reference to God's having made a promise and having confirmed it with an oath, the writer to the Hebrews says: "So that, by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we ... may be greatly encouraged." (Heb. 6:18). All of these "inabilities," however, are not weaknesses, but strengths. The inability to do evil or to lie or to fail is a mark of positive strength rather than of failure.
Another aspect of the power of God is that he is free. While God is bound to keep his promises, he was not initially under any compulsion to make those promises. Nothing in Scripture suggests that God's will is determined or bound by any external factors. On the contrary, it is common to attribute his decisions and actions to the "good pleasure of his Will". Paul in particular attributes them to God's will (Eph. 1:5,9; Phil. 2:13). God's decisions and actions are not determined by consideration of any factors outside himself. They are simply a matter of his own free choice.
The final part in rounding off our discussion on God’s nature is on God’s constancy. In several places in Scripture, God is described as unchanging. In Psalm 102, the psalmist contrasts God's nature with the heavens and the earth: "They will perish, but you will remain; ... they pass away; but you remain the same, and your years have no end" (vv. 26-27). Psalm 33:11 stresses the permanence of God's thoughts: "The plans of the Lord stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations." And God himself says that although his people have turned aside from his statutes, "I the Lord do not change" (Mal. 3:6). James says that God “does not change like shifting shadows" (James 1:17).
This divine constancy involves several aspects. There is first no quantitative change. God cannot increase in anything, because he is already perfection. Nor can he decrease, for if he were to, he would cease to be God. There also is no qualitative change. The nature of God does not undergo modification. Therefore, God does not change his mind, plans, or actions, for these rest upon his nature, which remains unchanged no matter what occurs. Indeed, in Numbers 23:19 the argument is that since God is not man, his actions must be unalterable. Further, God's intentions as well as his plans are always consistent, simply because his will does not change. Thus, God is ever faithful to his covenant with Abraham, for example. He had chosen Abraham and given him his word, and he would not change his mind or go back on his promise.
What, then, are we to make of those passages where God seems to change his mind, or to repent over what he has done? These passages can be explained in several ways:
1. Some of them are to be understood as simply descriptions of God's actions and feelings in human terms, and from a human perspective. Included here are representations of God as experiencing pain or regret.
2. What may seem to be changes of mind may actually be new stages in the working out of God's plan. An example of this is the offering of salvation to the Gentiles. While a part of God's original plan, it represented a rather sharp break with what had preceded.
3. Some apparent changes of mind are changes of orientation resulting from man's move into a different relationship with God. God did not change when Adam sinned; rather, man had moved into God's disfavour. This works the other way as well. Take the case of Nineveh. God said, "Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” Nineveh repented and was spared (Jon 3:4-10). It was man that had changed, not God's plan.
Some interpretations of the doctrine of divine constancy, expressed as immutability, have actually drawn heavily upon the Greek idea of immobility and sterility. This makes God inactive. But the biblical view is not that God is static but stable. He is active and dynamic, but in a way which is stable and consistent with his nature. What we are dealing with here is the dependability of God. He will be the same tomorrow as he is today. He will act as he has promised. He will fulfil his commitments. The believer can rely upon that (Lam. 3:22-23; 1 John 1:9).
In modern times, the idea of an unchanging God has been challenged by the movement known as process theology (from which we get the concept of “absolute” and “permissive” wills). According to the process theologians, God is responsive to and receptive of the processes of the world. This places limitations upon the absoluteness of God. The reasoning of the process theologians goes something like this: (a) Divine omniscience means that at every moment of the divine life God knows all that is knowable at that given moment. (God would have an “absolute” will on what He wanted to happen) (b) However, in every moment of God's life there are new unforeseen happenings in the world which have become knowable only at that moment. (c) Therefore, God's knowledge processes with every new decision and action in the world (things which do not go according to His divine or “absolute” plan would thus be dealt with or allowed in a contingency “permitted” plan). As a result, other traditional conceptions about God must also be modified. Divine sovereignty, for instance, is no longer to be regarded as absolute. Man is now to be viewed as taking a part in determining the future.
What does this mean? Dependence on the processes of the world compromises quite seriously the absolute or unqualified dimensions of God. While the Bible does picture God as involved with the world, it also pictures him as antedating the creation and having an independent status. Genuine transcendence, as taught in the Bible, excludes the type of limitations that process theology imposes. This cannot be considered the biblical view.
Although process theology purports to view God as a personal being, unlike the impersonal unmoved mover of Greek metaphysics, it is questionable whether this is really the case. God seems to be reduced to little more than an aspect of reality. The only way to avoid the road into heresy started by process theology, is to have a faithful rendition of the biblical picture of God, on what the Bible says of God’s nature, rather than what man thinks is God’s nature.
Where is history and world events going, and why? What, if, anything is causing the pattern of history to develop as it is? These are questions which confront every thinking person and which crucially affect his way of life. Christianity's answer is that God has a plan which includes everything that occurs, and that he is now at work carrying out that plan.
We need to make some key definitions first. This is to avoid misunderstandings due to different perceptions as to what certain words and terms mean, words which we have taken for granted to mean what our denominations say it should be.
We sometimes refer to the plan of God as the decrees of God. There are several reasons, however, why in this discussion we will use the term plan rather than decrees. First, the word “plan” stresses the unity of God's intention together with the resultant consistency and coherence of his actions. Second, it emphasizes what God does, that is, what he wills, rather than what man must do or what happens to man as a consequence of God's will. Third, it emphasizes the intelligent dimension of God's decisions. They are not arbitrary or haphazard.
We may define the plan of God as his eternal decision rendering certain all things which shall come to pass. There are several analogies which, though necessarily insufficient, may help us to understand this concept. The plan of God is like the architect's plans, drawn first in his mind and then on paper, according to his intention and design, and only afterward executed in an actual structure. Or God may be thought of as being like a football coach who has a carefully conceived game plan which his team seeks to carry out. Or he may be likened to a business executive planning the strategy and tactics of his firm.
It is necessary at this point to clarify certain terminology. Many Christians (including theologians) use the terms predestinate and foreordain virtually synonymously. For our purposes, however, we shall use them somewhat differently. "Predestinate" carries a somewhat narrower connotation than does "foreordain." Since it literally suggests the destiny of someone or something, it is best used of God's plan as it relates in particular to the eternal condition of moral agents. We will use the term foreordain in a broader sense, that is, to refer to the decisions of God with respect to any matters within the realm of cosmic history. "Predestination" will be reserved for the matter of eternal salvation or condemnation. Within predestination, “election" will be used of God's positive choice of individuals, nations, or groups to eternal life and fellowship with Him. "Election" will refer to positive predestination, while "reprobation" will refer to negative predestination or God's choice of some to suffer eternal damnation or lostness. The use of "predestination" is limited here to either election or reprobation or both; “foreordination," on the other hand, while it also may refer to election, reprobation, or both, has a far broader range of meaning. For a short (and I mean very short) exposition on the Biblical basis of predestination and foreknowledge, please refer to Ephesians ch.1:3-14
The Biblical Teaching
Is the term “God’s plan” found in the Bible, or is it a concept invented by theologians? We find that the Bible contains a rich set of teachings regarding the divine plan. Several terms in both Hebrew and Greek are used to refer to God's design. Due to limitations in displaying Hebrew and Greek on html text, I will be using the English transliteration of the words (if anyone knows how to intersperse English html text with Hebrew and Greek, please let me know and I will incorporate it in the next revision).
Firstly, the Old Testament. The word “yatsar”, which is probably the most explicit of the Hebrew terms, appears in Psalm 139:16; Isaiah 22:11; 37:26; and 46:11. It carries the idea of purpose and prior determination. Another common Hebrew term, “ya’ats”, is used by Isaiah several times (14:24, 26, 27; 19:12, 17; 23:9) and by Jeremiah (49:20; 50:45). Its substantive derivative, “'etsah”, is both common and precise (Job 38:2; 42:3; Psa. 33:11; 106:13; 107:11; Prov. 19:21; Isa. 5:19; 14:26; 19:17; 46:10, 11; Jer. 32:19; 49:20; 50:45; Mic. 4:12). There are several other less frequent terms, and some which refer to particular decrees regarding salvation and fellowship with God.
In the New Testament, the most explicit term used with reference to the plan of God is “proorizo” (Acts 4:28; Rom. 8:29,30; 1 Cor. 2:7; Eph. 1:5, 11). Similar words are “protasso” (Acts 17:26), “protithemi” (Eph. 1:9) and its substantive “prothesis” (Rom. 8:28; 9:11; Eph. 1:11; 3:11; 2 Tim. 1:9), and “proetoimazo” (Rom. 9:23; Eph. 2:10). Other terms stressing advance knowledge of one sort or another are “problepo”, “proorao” and “proginosko”. The idea of appointing is found in “procheirizo” and “procheirotoneo”, as well as sometimes in the simple “‘orizo” (Luke 22:22; Acts 2:23; 10:42; 17:26, 3 1; Heb. 4:7). The idea of willing is conveyed by “boulema”, “thelema”, “thelesis”, while the good pleasure of the Father is designated by “eudokia” and “eudokeo”. Note the use of the adverb “pro”, which carries with it the connotation “in advance”. Some words if latinized would probably sound familiar to English readers, like ”prothesis” (“pro” meaning “in advance”, and “thesis” meaning “work”) and “proginosko” (“prognosis”). Other words appear in familiar statements by Jesus eg. “yet not as I will, but as you will” (Matt 26:39).
The Old Testament Teaching
In the Old Testament presentation, the planning and ordaining work of God is very much tied up with the covenant which the Lord made with his people. As we read of all that God did in choosing and taking personal care of his people, two truths about him stand out. On one hand, God is supremely powerful, the creator and sustainer of all that is. On the other hand is the loving, caring, personal nature of the Lord. He is not mere abstract power, but is thought of as a loving person.
For the Old Testament writers, it was virtually inconceivable that anything could happen independently of the will and working of God. As evidence of this, consider that common impersonal expressions like "It rained" are not found in the Old Testament. For the Hebrews, rain did not simply happen; God sent the rain. They saw him as the all-powerful determiner of everything that occurs. Not only is he active in everything that occurs, but he has planned it. What is happening now was planned long ago. God himself comments, for example, concerning the destruction wreaked by the king of Assyria: "Have you not heard? Long ago I ordained it. In days of old I planned it; now I have brought it to pass, that you have turned fortified cities into piles of stone" (Isa. 37:26). Even something as seemingly trivial as the building of reservoirs is described as having been planned long before (Isa. 22:11). There is a sense that every day has been designed and ordered by the Lord. Thus the psalmist writes, "Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be." (Psa. 139:16). A similar thought is expressed by Job (14:5). There is in God's plan a concern for the welfare of the nation of Israel, and of every one of God's children (Psa. 27:10-11; 37; 65:3; 91; 121; 139:16; Dan. 12:1; Jonah 3:5). We find in Psalms 91 and 121 a confidence in the goodness, provision, and protection of God that in many ways reminds us of Jesus' teaching about the birds and the flowers (Matt. 6:25-29).
The Old Testament also enunciates belief in the efficaciousness of God's plan. What is now coming to pass is doing so because it is (and has always been) part of God's plan. He will most assuredly bring to actual occurrence everything in his plan. What he has promised, he will do. Isaiah 46:9-11 puts it this way: "I am God, and there is none like me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please. From the east I summon a bird of prey; from a far-off land, a man to fulfil my purpose. What I have said, that will I bring about; what I have planned, that will I do.” Similar statements are found in Isaiah 14:24-27. Here we read not only of God's faithfulness to his avowed purpose, but also of the futility of opposing it: "For the Lord Almighty has purposed, and who can thwart him? His hand is stretched out, and who can turn it back?" (v. 27; cf. Job 42:2; Jer 23:20; Zech. 1:6).
It is particularly in the wisdom literature and the prophets that the idea of an all-inclusive divine purpose is most prominent. God has from the beginning, from all eternity, had an inclusive plan encompassing the whole of reality and extending even to the minor details of life. "The Lord works out everything for his own ends - even the wicked for a day of disaster" (Prov. 16:4; cf. 3:19-20; Job 38, especially v. 4; Isa. 40:12; Jer. 10:12-13). Even what is ordinarily thought of as an occurrence of chance, such as the casting of lots, is represented as the Lord's doing (Prov. 16:33). Nothing can deter or frustrate the accomplishment of his purpose. Proverbs 19:21 says, "Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails” (cf. 21:30-31; Jer. 10:23-24). We humans may not always understand as God works out his purpose in our lives. This was the experience of Job throughout the book that bears his name; it is articulated particularly in 42:3, "'Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?' Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.”
Thus, in the view of the Old Testament believer, God had created the world, he was directing history, and all this was but the unfolding of a plan prepared in eternity and related to his intention of fellowship with his people. Creation in its vast extent and the details of individual lives were included in this plan and would surely come to pass as God designed. As a result, the prophets could speak of coming events with certainty. Future events could be prophesied because God had planned them, and his plan would surely come to fruition.
The New Testament Teaching
The plan and purpose of God is also prominent in the New Testament. Jesus saw the events of his life and events in the future as necessarily coming to pass because of the plan of God. Jesus affirmed that God had planned not only the large, complex events, such as the fall and destruction of Jerusalem (Luke 21:20-22), but details as well, such as the apostasy of and betrayal by Judas, and the faithfulness of the remaining disciples (Matt. 26:24; Mark 14:21; Luke 22:22; John 17:12; 18:9). The fulfilment of God's plan and Old Testament prophecy is a prominent theme in the writing of Matthew (1:22; 2:15, 23; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:35; 21:4; 26:56) and of John (12:38; 19:24, 28, 36). While critics may object that some of these prophecies were fulfilled by people who knew about them and may have had a vested interest in seeing them fulfilled (e.g., Jesus fulfilled Psalm 69:21 by saying, "I thirst" (John 19:28), it is notable that other prophecies were fulfilled by persons who had no desire to fulfil them and probably had no knowledge of them, such as the Roman soldiers in their casting lots for Jesus' garment and not breaking any of his bones.
Even where there was no specific prophecy to be fulfilled, Jesus conveyed a sense of necessity concerning future events. For example, he said to his disciples, "And when you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is not yet.... And the gospel must first be preached to all nations" (Matt 24:6, 14). He also had a profound sense of necessity concerning what he must do; the Father's plan needed to be completed. Thus, he said, "I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose" (Luke 4:43), and “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life" (John 3:14-15). We know that he had this consciousness already at the age of twelve, for when his worried parents found him in the temple, he responded, "Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" (literally, "in the things of my Father" - Luke 2:49).
The apostles also laid emphasis upon the divine purpose. Peter said in his speech at Pentecost, "This man [Jesus] was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross." (Acts 2:23). And after Peter and John were released by the Sanhedrin, the disciples lifted their voices to God, noting that Herod and Pontius Pilate, together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, had been gathered in Jerusalem "to do [against Jesus] what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen" (Acts 4:27-28). Peter also noted that various events which had occurred were in fulfilment of the predictions of Scripture - the apostasy of Judas (Acts 1:16), the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (2:16-21), and the resurrection of Jesus (2:24-28). In writing the Book of Revelation the apostle John gave us a particularly striking example of belief in the divine plan. The note of certainty pervading the whole book, the entire series of events predicted there, derives from belief in God's plan and foreordination.
It is in Paul's writings that the divine plan according to which everything comes to pass is made most explicit. Everything that occurs is by God's choice and in accordance with His will (1 Cor. 12:18; 15:38; Col. 1:19). The very fortunes of nations are determined by him (Acts 17:26). God's redemptive work unfolds in accordance with his intended purpose (Gal. 3:8; 4:4-5). The choice of individual and nation to be his own and the consequent events are God's sovereign doing (Rom. 9-11). Paul sees himself as having been set apart even before his birth (Gal. 1:15). One might well take the image of the potter and the clay, which Paul uses in a specific and somewhat narrow reference (Rom. 9:20-23), and see it as expressive of his whole philosophy of history. Paul regards "all things" that happen as part of God's intention for his children (Eph. 1:11-12). Thus Paul says that "in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose" (Rom. 8:28), his purpose being that we might be "conformed to the likeness of his Son" (v. 29).
The Nature of the Divine Plan
We now need to draw together, from these numerous and varied biblical references, some general characteristics of God's plan. This will enable us to understand more completely what the plan is like and what we can expect from God.
1. God's plan is from all eternity. We have noted that the psalmist spoke of God's having planned all of our days before there were any of them (Psa. 139:16), and that Isaiah spoke of God's having "planned it long ago" (Isa. 22:1 1). Paul in Ephesians indicates that God "chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world" (Eph. 1:4), and later in the same letter Paul speaks of "the eternal purpose which [God] has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord" (3:11). The apostle also writes to Timothy that God has "saved us and called us to a holy life - not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time" (2 Tim. 1:9). These decisions are not made as history unfolds and events occur. God manifests his purpose within history (2 Tim. 1:10), but his decisions have been made long before. They have always been God's plan, from all eternity, from before the beginning of time.
Being eternal, the plan of God does not have any chronological sequence within it. This is one reason for referring to the plan of God rather than the decrees. There is no before and after within eternity. There is, of course, a logical sequence (e.g., the decision to let Jesus die on the cross logically follows the decision to send him to the earth), and there is a temporal sequence in the enacting of the events which have been decreed; but there is no temporal sequence to God's willing. It is one coherent simultaneous decision.
2. The plan of God and the decisions contained therein are free on God's part. This is implied in expressions like "the good pleasure of his Will" (eudokia). It is also implicit in the fact that no one has advised him (for that matter, there is no one who could advise him). Isaiah 40:13-14 says "Who has understood the mind of the Lord, or instructed him as his counselor? Whom did the Lord consult to enlighten him, and who taught him the right way? Who was it that taught him knowledge or showed him the path of understanding?" Paul quotes this very passage as he concludes his great statement on the sovereignty and inscrutability of God's workings (Rom. 11:34). After adding a word from Job 35:7 to the effect that God is indebted to no one, he closes with, "For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen" (Rom. 11:36). Paul also quotes Isaiah 40:13 in 1 Corinthians. After speaking of the wisdom of God as having been decreed before the ages (1 Cor. 2:7), he asks, "For who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him?" (v. 16). That man has had no input into what God has planned might at first seem to be something of a disadvantage. But on reflection we see that it is instead a source of comfort. For, being without man's input, God's plan is not subject to the incompleteness of knowledge and the errors of judgement so characteristic of human plans.
Not only do God's decisions not stem from any sort of external determination, they are not a matter of internal compulsion either. That is to say, although God's decisions and actions are quite consistent with his nature, they are not constrained by his nature. He is not like the gods of pantheism, which are virtually constrained by their own nature to will what they will and do what they do. God did not have to create. He had to act in a loving and holy fashion in whatever he did, but he was not required to create. He freely chose to create for reasons not known to us. While his love requires him to act lovingly toward any creatures he might bring into existence, it did not require that he create in order to have objects to love. There had been eternally an expression of love among the several members of the Trinity (see, e.g., John 17:24).
3. In the ultimate sense, the purpose of God's plan is God's glory. This is the highest of all values, and the one great motivating factor in all that God has chosen and done. Paul indicates that "all things were created by him [Christ] and for him" (Col. 1:16). God chose us in Christ and destined us "according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace" (Eph. 1:5-6). The twenty-four elders in Revelation who fall down and worship the Lord God Almighty sing, "You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being" (Rev. 4:11). What God does, he does for his own name's sake (Isa. 48:1 1; Eze. 20:9). The purpose of the whole plan of salvation is the glory of God through the good works which God has prepared for his people to do (Eph. 2:8-10). Jesus said that his followers were to let their lights so shine that men would see their good works and glorify their Father in heaven (Matt. 5:16; cf. John 15:8). We have been appointed to live for the praise of his glory (Eph. 1:12). We have been sealed with the Spirit to the praise of his glory (Eph. 1:13-14).
This is not to say that there are no secondary motivations behind God's plan and resultant actions. He has provided the means of salvation in order to fulfil his love for mankind and his concern for their welfare. This, however, is not an ultimate end, but only a means to the greater end, God's own glory. We must bear in mind that God is truly the Lord. We exist for his sake, for his glory and pleasure, rather than he for ours.
4. The plan of God is all-inclusive. This is implicit in the great variety of items which are mentioned in the Bible as parts of God's plan. Beyond that, however, are explicit statements of the extent of God's plan. Paul speaks of God as the one who "works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will" (Eph. 1:11). The psalmist says that "all things serve you" (Ps. 119:91). While all ends are part of God's plan, all means are as well. Thus the comprehensiveness of the divine decisions goes beyond what we might expect. Although we tend at times to think of sacred and secular areas of life, no such division exists from God's standpoint. There are no areas that fall outside the purview of his concern and decision.
5. God's plan is efficacious. What he has purposed from eternity will surely come to pass. The Lord says, "For the Lord Almighty has purposed, and who can thwart him? His hand is stretched out, and who can turn it back?" (Isa. 14:24,27). He will not change his mind, nor will he discover hitherto unknown considerations which will cause him to alter his intentions. "My counsel shall stand, and I will do all that I purpose” says the Lord in Isaiah 46:10. Because the counsel of the Lord is from all eternity and is perfect, it will never fade nor be replaced; it endures forever: "The plans of the Lord stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations" (Psa. 33:11).
6. God's plan relates to his actions rather than his nature. It pertains to his decisions regarding what he shall do, not to his personal attributes. This is to say that God does not decide to be loving and powerful, for example. He is loving and powerful simply by virtue of his being God. He does not have to choose to be loving and powerful; indeed, he could not choose to be otherwise. Thus, the decisions of God relate to objects, events, and processes external to the divine nature, not to what he is or what transpires within his person.
7. The plan of God relates primarily to what God himself does in terms of creating, preserving, directing, and redeeming. It also involves human willing and acting, but only secondarily, that is, as means to the ends he purposes, or as results of actions which he takes. Note that God's role here is to decide that certain things will take place in our lives, not to lay down commands to act in a certain way. To be sure, what God has decided will come to pass does involve an element of necessity. The particulars of God's plan, however, should be thought of less as imperatives than as descriptions of what will occur. The plan of God does not force men to act in particular ways, but renders it certain that they will freely act in those ways.
8. Thus, while the plan of God relates primarily to what God does, the actions of men are also included. Jesus noted, for example, that the responses of individuals to his message were a result of the Father's decision: “All that the Father gives me will come to me.... No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him" (John 6:37,44; cf. 17:2, 6, 9). Luke said in Acts 13:48 that "as many as were ordained to eternal life believed."
God's plan includes what we ordinarily call good acts. Cyrus, who did not personally know or acknowledge Jehovah, was foreordained to help fulfil God's purpose of rebuilding Jerusalem and the temple (Isa. 44:28). Paul says that we believers "are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them" (Eph. 2:10). On the other hand, the evil actions of men, which are contrary to God's law and moral intentions, are also seen in Scripture as part of God's plan, as foreordained by him. The betrayal, conviction, and crucifixion of Jesus are a prominent instance of this (Luke 22:22; Acts 2:23; 4:27-28).
9. The plan of God in terms of its specifics is unchangeable. This idea has already been introduced in the statement regarding the efficaciousness of God's plan. Here we wish to emphasize that God does not change his mind or alter his decisions regarding specific determinations. This may seem strange in light of the seeming alteration of his intentions with regard to Nineveh (Jonah), and his apparent repentance for having made man (Gen. 6:6). The statement in Genesis 6, however, should be regarded as an anthropomorphism, and Jonah's announcement of impending destruction should be viewed as a warning used to effect God's actual plan for Nineveh. We must keep in mind here that constancy is one of the attributes of God's greatness.
Logical Priority: God's Plan or Human Action?
We must now consider whether God's plan or human action is logically prior. While Calvinists and Arminians are agreed that human actions are included in God's plan, they disagree as to what is the cause and what is the result. Do people do what they do because God has decided that this is exactly how they are going to act, or does God first foresee what they will do and then on that basis make his decision as to what is going to happen?
1. Calvinists believe that God's plan is logically prior and that man's decisions and actions are a consequence. With respect to the particular matter of the acceptance or rejection of salvation, God in his plan has chosen that some shall believe and thus receive the offer of eternal life. He foreknows what will happen because he has decided what is to happen. This is true with respect to all the other decisions and actions of human beings as well. God is not dependent upon what man decides. It is not the case, then, that God determines that what men will do will come to pass, nor does he choose to eternal life those who he foresees will believe. Rather, God's decision has rendered it certain that every individual will act in a particular way.
2. Arminians, on the other hand, place a higher value upon human freedom. God allows and expects man to exercise the will he has been given. If this were not so, we would not find the biblical invitations to choose God, the "whosoever will" passages, such as "Come to me, all who labour and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest" (Matt. 11:28). The very offering of such invitations implies that man can either accept or reject them. There is a genuine possibility of both options. This, however, seems inconsistent with the position that God's decisions have rendered the future certain. If they had, there would be no point in issuing invitations to man, for God's decisions as to what would happen would come to pass regardless of what man does. The Arminians therefore look for some other way of regarding the decisions of God.
The Arminians’ key lies in understanding the role of God's foreknowledge in the formation and execution of the divine plan. In Romans 8:29 Paul says, "For those God foreknew he also predestined." From this verse the Arminian draws the conclusion that God's choice or determination of each individual's destiny is a result of foreknowledge. Thus, those who God foreknew would believe are those he decided would be saved. A similar statement can be made of all human actions, of all other aspects of life for that matter. God knows what all of us are going to do. He therefore wills what he foresees will happen. Note that human action and its effects are not a result of God's decision. The human action is logically prior. On this basis, the concept of human freedom is preserved. Every individual has genuine options. It is the human who renders his actions certain; God simply acquiesces. One might therefore say that in the Arminian view this aspect of God's plan is conditional upon human decision; in the Calvinistic view, on the other hand, God's plan is unconditional.
A Moderately Calvinistic Model
Despite difficulties in relating divine sovereignty to human freedom, we nonetheless have to come to the conclusion on biblical grounds that the plan of God is unconditional rather than conditional upon man's choice (it was a difficult conclusion for me, and was quite hard to accept). There simply is nothing in the Bible to suggest that God chooses humans because of what they are going to do on their own. The Arminian concept of foreknowledge (prognosis), appealing though it is, is not borne out by Scripture. The Greek word for foreknowledge means more than simply having advance knowledge or precognition of what is to come. It appears to have in its background the Hebrew concept of “yada”, which often meant more than simple awareness. It suggested a kind of intimate knowledge - it was even used of sexual intercourse. When Paul says that God foreknew the people of Israel, he is not referring merely to an advance knowledge which God had. Indeed, it is clear that God's choice of Israel was not upon the basis of advance knowledge of a favorable response on their part. Had God anticipated such a response, he would certainly have been wrong. Note that in Romans 11:2 Paul says, "God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew," and that a discussion of the faithlessness of Israel follows. Certainly in this passage foreknowledge must mean something more than advance knowledge. In Acts 2:23, foreknowledge is linked with the will (boule) of God. Moreover, in 1 Peter we read that the elect are chosen according to the foreknowledge of God (1 Pet 1:2), and that Christ was foreknown from before the foundation of the world (v. 20). To suggest that foreknowledge here means nothing more than previous knowledge or acquaintance is to virtually deprive these verses of any real meaning. We must conclude that foreknowledge as used in Romans 8:29 carries with it the idea of favorable disposition or selection as well as advance knowledge.
Furthermore, there are passages where the unconditional nature of God's selecting plan is made quite explicit. This is seen in Paul's statement regarding the choice of Jacob over Esau: "Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad - in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls she [Rebecca] was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.' Just as it is written, 'Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated’” (Rom. 9:11-13). Paul seems to be taking great pains to emphasize the unmerited or unconditional nature of God's choice of Jacob. Later in the same chapter Paul comments, "Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden" (v. 18). The import of the subsequent image of the potter and the clay is very difficult to escape (vv. 20-24). Similarly, Jesus told his disciples, "You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide" (John 15:16). Because of these and similar considerations, we must conclude that the plan of God is unconditional rather than conditional upon actions of men which he has foreseen.
The Question of Freedom
At this point we must raise the question of whether God can create genuinely free beings and yet render certain all things that are to come to pass, including the free decisions and actions of those beings. The key to unlocking the problem is the distinction between rendering something certain and rendering it necessary. The former is a matter of God's decision that something will happen; the latter is a matter of his decreeing that it must occur. In the former case, the human being will not act in a way contrary to the course of action which God has chosen; in the latter case, the human being cannot act in a way contrary to what God has chosen. What we are saying is that God renders it certain that a person who could act (or could have acted) differently does in fact act in a particular way (the way that God wills).
What does it mean to say that I am free? It means that I am not under constraint. Thus, I am free to do whatever pleases me. But am I free with respect to what pleases me and what does not? To put it differently, I may choose one action over another because it holds more appeal for me. But I am not fully in control of the appeal which each of those actions holds for me. That is quite a different matter. I make all my decisions, but those decisions are in large measure influenced by certain characteristics of mine which I am not capable of altering by my own choice. If, for example, I am offered for dinner a choice between kidney and steak, I am quite free to take the kidney, but I do not desire to do so. I have no conscious control over my dislike of kidney. That is a given that goes with my being the person I am. In that respect my freedom is limited. I do not know whether it is my genes or environmental conditioning which has caused my dislike of kidney, but it is apparent that I cannot by mere force of will alter this characteristic of mine. There are, then, limitations upon who I am and what I desire and will. I certainly did not choose the genes that I have; I did not select my parents nor the exact geographical location and cultural setting of my birth. My freedom, therefore, is within these limitations. And here arises the question: Who set up these factors? The theistic answer is, "God did." Paul said in Philippians 2:13 that “it is God who works in you to will and to act according to His good purpose”.
I am free to choose among various options. But my choice will be influenced by who I am. Therefore, my freedom must be understood as my ability to choose among options in light of who I am. And who I am is a result of God's decision and activity. God is in control of all the circumstances that bear upon my situation in fife. He may bring to bear (or permit to be brought to bear) factors which will make a particular option appealing, even powerfully appealing, to me. Through all the factors that have come into my experience in time past he has influenced the type of person I now am. Indeed, he has affected what has come to pass by willing that it was I who was brought into being.
Whenever a child is conceived, there are an infinite number of possibilities. A countless variety of genetic combinations may emerge out of the union of sperm and ovum. We do not know why a particular combination actually results. But now, for the sake of argument, let us consider the possibility of a hypothetical individual whose genetic combination differs infinitesimally from my own. He is identical to me in every respect; in every situation of life he responds as I do. But at one particular point he will choose to move his finger to the left whereas I will move mine to the right. I am not compelled to move my finger to the right, but I freely choose to do so. Now by making sure that it was I, and not my hypothetical double, who came into existence, and setting the circumstances of my life, God rendered it certain that at that one particular point I would freely move my finger to the right. In contrast to deism, we see the decisions of God, in rendering certain the free decisions and actions of individuals, as completely free in this matter, not in any sense determined. Furthermore, in rendering human action certain, God does not merely choose to bring a being into existence and then leave him to function in a mechanistic, determined world. God is actively at work within this world, influencing what takes place.
The position being advocated here holds that God works congruously with the will of the individual; that is, God works in such a suasive way with the will of the individual that he freely makes the choice that God intends. With respect to the offer of salvation, this means that God does not begin by regenerating those he has chosen, transforming their souls so that they believe; rather, he works in an appealing, persuading fashion so that they freely choose to believe, and then he regenerates them. God is operative in the life of the individual long before his work of suasion and regeneration: God has from eternity decided that the potential individual who comes into actual existence is the one who will respond to this set of circumstances precisely as God intends.
Is God's having rendered human decisions and actions certain compatible with human freedom? How one responds depends on his understanding of freedom. According to the position we are espousing, the answer to the question, "Could the individual have chosen differently?" is yes, while the answer to the question, "But would he have?" is no. In our understanding, for human freedom to exist, only the first question need be answered in the affirmative. But others would argue that human freedom exists only if both questions can be answered in the affirmative; that is, if the individual not only could have chosen differently, but could also have desired to choose differently. In their view, freedom means total spontaneity, random choice. We would point out to them that when it comes to human decisions and actions, nothing is completely spontaneous or random. There is a measure of predictability with respect to human behaviour; and the better we know an individual, the better we can anticipate his responses. For example, a good friend or relative might say, "I knew you were going to say that." Television networks can project the outcome of elections by analysing returns from a few bellwether precincts. We conclude that if by freedom is meant random choice, human freedom is a practical impossibility. But if by freedom is meant ability to choose between options, human freedom exists and is compatible with God's having rendered our decisions and actions certain.
I digress at this point to explain why I mentioned at the beginning that generally Americans and congregations influenced by US-based preachers and writers tend to argue for extreme Arminian views of freedom and the “two wills” concept. The United States was founded amidst revolution from a monarchial system of rule, and the American concept of freedom is based on individual freedom and liberty of choice. Hence also their overiding obsession with “democracy” and the tendency to export their governmental system. As a result of the ingrained individualism, Americans find it very hard to accept the fact that they might not have total control over their destiny (concept of liberty), and that they would not have a say in God’s plan (concept of democracy). As a result, Arminism holds a greater appeal to their collective philosophy, and they have taken Arminism from its Moravian Brethren roots one step further, to the extreme, by incorporating their concepts of liberty, freedom and democracy. A lot of charismatic preachers from the US subscribe to this line of thought. Coupled with negative connotations associated with Calvinism (the Puritans, Oliver Cromwell, rigidness, witch hunts, etc) and an obsession with democracy, it is no wonder that generally American Christians have gone for the “two wills” concept, forgetting along the way that God’s kingdom operates by Theocracy, not Democracy.
Going back to our discussion on the subject of outcomes, it should be noted that if certainty of outcome is inconsistent with freedom, divine foreknowledge, as the Arminian understands that term, presents as much difficulty for human freedom as does divine foreordination. For if God knows what I will do, it must be certain that I am going to do it. If it were not certain, God could not know it; he might be mistaken (I might act differently from what he expects). But if what I will do is certain, then surely I will do it, whether or not I know what I will do. It will happen! But am I then free? In the view of those whose definition of freedom entails the implication that it cannot be certain that a particular event will occur, presumably I am not free. In their view, divine foreknowledge is just as incompatible with human freedom as is divine foreordination.
God foreknows what individuals will freely do, for He in effect made that decision certain by choosing the circumstances and influences which will be present in any particular point in time and space which will bring about the individual’s decision. With respect to salvation, this means that, in logical order, God decided that he would create humans, that they would fall, and then that among this group, all of whom would come under the curse of sin, some individuals would, acting as he intends, freely choose to respond to him.
Our position that God has rendered certain everything that occurs raises another question: Is there not a contradiction at certain points between what God commands and says he desires and what he actually wills? For example, sin is universally prohibited, yet apparently God wills for it to occur. Certainly murder is prohibited in Scripture, and yet the death of Jesus by execution was apparently willed by God (Luke 22:22; Acts 2:23). Further, we are told that God is not willing that any should perish (2 Peter 3:9), yet apparently he does not actually will for all to be saved, since not everyone is saved. How are we to reconcile these seemingly contradictory considerations? Herein lies the origin of the misconception of “absolute” and “permissive” will.
We must distinguish between two different senses of God's will, which we will refer to as God's "wish / desire" and God's "Will". The former is God's general intention, the values with which he is pleased, like the Ten Commandments. The latter is God's specific intention in a given situation, what he decides shall actually occur. There are times, many of them, when God wills to permit, and thus to have occur, what he really does not wish. This is the case with sin. God does not desire sin to occur. There are occasions, however, when he simply says, in effect, "So be it," allowing a human to choose freely a sinful course of action. Joseph's treatment at the hands of his brothers did not please God; it was not consistent with what he is like. God did, however, will to permit it; he did not intervene to prevent it. And interestingly enough, God used their action to produce the very thing it was intended to prevent - Joseph's ascendancy.
God does not enjoy the destruction of the ungodly. It brings him sorrow. Yet he chooses to permit them, by their own volition, to reject and disbelieve. Why he does this we do not know. But what we are talking about here is not as unique and foreign to us as we might at first think. It is not unlike the way parents sometimes treat their children. A mother may wish for her son to avoid a particular type of behaviour, and may tell him so. Yet there are situations in which she may, unobserved by her son, see him about to engage in the forbidden action, yet choose not to intervene to prevent it. Here is a case in which the parent's wish is clearly that the child not engage in certain behaviour, yet her will is that he do what he has willed to do. By choosing not to intervene to prevent the act, the mother is actually willing that it take place.
We must understand that the will of God permits rather than causes sin. God never says, "Commit this sin!" But by his permitting the conditions which lead a person to commit a sin and by his not preventing the sin, God in effect wills the sin. If one maintains that failure to prevent something constitutes causation or responsibility, then God would have to be regarded, in this secondary sense, as causing evil. But, we should note, this is not the way that responsibility is usually assigned.
So, does it mean that God has two wills, which may be contradictory to one another? It should be clear by now that God has only one will, His absolute will, His plan. By classifying God’s “wish” as His “absolute will” and his will with respect to our “response” as “permissive will”, we create a false dichotomy, and as with false dichotomies, there can be no resolution.
Another issue that must be examined concerns whether our view of the all-encompassing plan of God removes incentives for activity on our part. If God has already rendered certain what is to occur, is there any point in our seeking to accomplish his will? Does what we do really make any difference in what happens? This issue relates particularly to evangelism. If God has already chosen (elected) who will be saved and who will not, what difference does it make whether we (or anyone else for that matter) seek to propagate the gospel? Nothing can change the fact that the elect will be saved and the nonelect will not.
Two points should be made by way of response. One is that if God has rendered certain the end, his plan also includes the means to that end. His plan may well include that our witness is the means by which an elect person will come to saving faith. Thus it is foreordained by God that we should witness to that person. The other consideration is that we do not know in detail what God's plan is. So we must proceed on the basis of what God has revealed of his wish. Accordingly, we must witness. This may mean that some of our time is spent on someone who will not ultimately enter the kingdom of heaven. But that does not mean that our time has been wasted. It may well have been the means to fulfilling another part of God's plan. And ultimately it is faithfulness, not success, that is God's measure of our service. A corollary is in prayer. The import of Jesus’ statements to the effect that “whatever we bind/loose on earth will already have been done in heaven” (Matt. 16:19) (the Greek tense of the word is “already done” rather than the oft understood “will be done”) makes so much more sense in the light of God’s foreordination. God will reveal to us his will through prayer, and when we pray His will, it will come to past. We must also remind ourselves that what has been discussed so far is God’s plan, i.e. looking from God’s perspective, not from man’s perspective. Paul in 1 Cor 13:9 that “now we know in part, we prophesy in part”. We do not know the full details of God’s plan on this side of eternity, so we must proceed according to God’s wish, day to day, for we know not what tomorrow holds (Matt. 6:34). One way of illustrating this conundrum is in the age-old question of “Once saved, always saved?” While it is true that God will save those he foreordained, i.e. “he will save those whom he will save”, however, from our perspective, we will not know whether at some time in the future we will make a decision to apostasize (like Judas). The problem is that the Calvinists and Arminians create a false dichotomy in this situation, the Calvinists arguing from the view of God’s perspective, and the Arminians arguing from the view of man’s perspective.
We began this section by asking the question, “Where is history and world events going, and why? What, if, anything is causing the pattern of history to develop as it is?” Our answer is that the Christian doctrine of the divine plan, which affirms that an all-wise, all-powerful, good God has from all eternity planned what is to occur and that history is carrying out His intention. There is a definite goal toward which history is progressing. History is not, then, merely chance happenings. And the force causing its movements is not impersonal atoms or blind fate. It is, rather, a loving God with whom we can have a personal relationship. We may look forward with assurance, then, toward the attainment of the telos (end) of the universe. And we may align our lives with what we know will be the outcome of history.
A Special Problem with Regards to Evil and God’s World
An extension of the argument for the concept of “absolute” and “permissive” wills (or to use the proper theological terms, “preceptive” and “decretive”) of God goes into the concept of evil. For example, if a man gets drunk and shoots his family, is it the will of God that he should do it? The argument against the “single will” concept which we have proposed here is that the logical conclusion of the question was that it was God’s will that the man shoots his family. This implies that God caused the man to sin, and that He is the ultimate cause of sin, though not the immediate cause of it. However, we know that by definition, God cannot sin. Therefore the “single will” concept is wrong, and the only explanation is that the man strayed from God’s “absolute” will into His “permissive” will, therefore God did not sin or cause the man to sin. This simplistic view of God’s will, taken to extremes by various proponents, results in a line of reasoning something like this:
Whatever happens is caused by God.
Whatever is caused by God is good.
Whatever happens is good.
This returns us to the case of the patient who dies after a prayer for healing - if he dies, then it is reasoned that it must be for the greater good, so the reasoning goes.
Several observations need to be made by way of response to the apparent problem of evil in God’s “good” world.
1. While it may well be that in some cases God does not have the same obligations as do his creatures (we noted, for example, that the prohibition against stealing does not apply to him), to emphasize this is to make these moral qualities so equivocal that they begin to lose their meaning and force.
2. It would seem that at one point or another, we would be in danger of holding that God's will is arbitrary. (Some theologians like William of Ockham believed that God could have decided otherwise as to what is right and what is wrong.) We note that in this view God's “absolute” (preceptive) will and “permissive” (decretive) will can be and are quite dissimilar. The rationale of the “two wills” view is that God is not bound by any external law higher than Himself. What, then, is the status of his preceptive law? Is it in conformity with his nature? If it is not, then (since there is no higher law) it must be an arbitrary willing as to what is good. But if it is, then God's decretive will, at least at those points where it is in contradiction to his precepts, must not be in conformity with his nature. It results in the conclusion that either God's “permissive” (decretive) will or his “absolute” (preceptive) will is arbitrary, which is as good as saying that God Himself is arbitrary (in direct contradiction to Malachi 3:6).
3. The nature of goodness itself, or what we call good (as opposed to what is evil), is called into question by the “two wills”’s view of responsibility. The view’s logical conclusion when attempting to explain the apparent differences between God’s “absolute” and “permissive” wills in the light of good and evil goes something like this: "man is responsible because God calls him to account; man is responsible because the supreme power can punish him for disobedience. God, on the contrary, cannot be responsible for the plain reason that there is no power superior to him; no greater being can hold him accountable; no one can punish him.” This appears to come perilously close to the position that right and wrong is a matter of expediency. Accountability determines morality: an action is right if it will be rewarded, wrong if it will be punished. While on a lower level such considerations may motivate man, on a higher level they do not apply. Jesus said, "Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13). Part of what makes the death of Christ such a good act is that while he was not accountable to anyone, and would not (indeed could not) be punished for not submitting to the cross, he did in fact lay down his life.
So, at the end of this long, tedious discussion, what conclusions have we arrived at?
We began by asking whether there was such a thing as God’s absolute will and God’s permissive will. To this question, we proposed that the answer lies with knowing what is God like, what is God’s Nature, and then, what is God’s Plan.
To the question of God’s nature, we concluded that God is (a) all-knowing, (b) all-powerful, and (c) constant and unchanging. How do these aspects of God’s nature relate to His Plan?
We stated that God has a Plan for everything. Because of His nature, God knows what is going to happen because he has planned it and is able to fulfil it. What he plans will surely come to pass. We stated that the plan of God in terms of its specifics is unchangeable. We emphasized that God does not change his mind or alter his decisions regarding specific determinations.
Therefore, if God is unchanging, and is able to execute his plan with certainty, then the concept that God might not know what man’s response might be, or acts only upon man’s decisions, is untenable. The “alternative route” for a person or situation, i.e. the “permissive will” aspect, is therefore not valid or possible.
Our conclusion is thus that God has a Plan, and that this Plan is His Will for us in all situations and times. He does not have “alternative plans” should we make decisions apparently in contradiction to His wish, because our decisions would already have been known and purposed in His will for us. The concept of “absolute” and “permissive” wills is not supported by Scripture, in the light of understanding God’s nature and God’s plan.
God has only one Will - His Plan, and He always knows what has happened, is happening, and will happen to everything in our universe because He planned it, and is able to execute it with certainty. Otherwise, He wouldn’t be God. There is no need for recourse to “permissive” wills/plans. It is we who try to put what we cannot understand into “permissive” wills (a good excuse or term to use when we are not able to explain difficult situations), and in so doing, put God into a box.
References & Further Reading:
“Christian Theology” by Millard Erickson (Baker Book House)
Greek & Hebrew Text References
"Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament" 27th edition
"The Interlinear Bible" (Hendrickson)
"The NIV Exhaustive Concordance" by Goodrick and Kohlenberger (Zondervan)
"Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament" by Joseph Thayer (Baker)
"Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon of the Old Testament" by William Gesenius (Baker)