Let’s Dive Deeper: A Brief Theology on the Two Wills of God pt. 3

“The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law.” – Deuteronomy 29:29

In the previous two blogs, we have looked at the two wills of God, namely his secret will and his revealed will. This is is the final blog on this brief theology regarding the two wills of God, and it will provide two illustrations of the two wills of God at work within the same circumstances.


Illustrations of the Two Wills of God

What passages of Scripture portray God as willing something in one sense that he disapproves in another sense? Here are two biblical examples.

  1. The Death of Christ

The most compelling example of God’s willing for sin to come to pass while at the same time disapproving the sin is his willing the death of his perfect, divine Son. The betrayal of Jesus by Judas was a morally evil act inspired immediately by Satan (Luke 22: 3). Yet, in Acts 2: 23, Peter says, “This Jesus [was] delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.” The betrayal was sin, and it involved the instrumentality of Satan, but it was part of God’s ordained plan. That is, there is a sense in which God willed the delivering up of his Son, even though Judas’s act was sin. Moreover, Herod’s contempt for Jesus (Luke 23: 11), the Jews’ cry, “Crucify, crucify him!” (v. 21), Pilate’s spineless expediency (v. 24), and the Gentile soldiers’ mockery (v. 36) were also sinful attitudes and deeds. Yet in Acts 4: 27– 28, Luke expresses his understanding of the sovereignty of God in these acts by recording the prayer of the Jerusalem saints: 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. Herod, the Jewish crowds, Pilate, and the soldiers lifted their hands to rebel against the Most High, only to find that their rebellion was, in fact, unwitting (sinful) service in the inscrutable designs of God. The appalling death of Christ was the will and work of God the Father. Isaiah writes, “We esteemed him stricken, smitten by God. . . . It was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief” (Isa. 53: 4, 10). God’s will was very much engaged in the events that brought his Son to death on the cross. God considered it “fitting . . . [to] make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering” (Heb. 2: 10). Yet, as Jonathan Edwards points out, Christ’s suffering “could not come to pass but by sin. For contempt and disgrace was one thing he was to suffer.”[1] It goes almost without saying that God wills obedience to his moral law, and that he wills this in a way that can be rejected by many. This is evident from numerous texts: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 7: 21); “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (12: 50); “Whoever does the will of God abides forever” (1 John 2: 17). “The will of God” in these texts is the revealed, moral instruction of the Old and New Testaments, which forbids sin. Therefore, we know it was not the “will of God” that Judas, Herod, the Jewish crowds, Pilate, and the Gentile soldiers disobeyed the moral law of God by sinning in delivering Jesus up to be crucified. But we also know that it was the will of God that this should come to pass. Therefore, we know that God wills in one sense what he does not will in another sense. I. Howard Marshall’s statement, quoted in chapter 1, is confirmed by the death of Jesus: “We must certainly distinguish between what God would like to see happen and what he actually does will to happen.”

  1. The Hardening Work of God

Another evidence that demonstrates God’s willing (in one sense) a state of affairs that he disapproves (in another sense) is the testimony of Scripture that God wills to harden some men’s hearts so that they become obstinate in sinful behavior that he disapproves. The best-known example is the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. In Exodus 8: 1, the Lord says to Moses, “Go in to Pharaoh and say to him, ‘Thus says the LORD, “Let my people go, that they may serve me.”’” In other words, God’s command, that is, his will, was that Pharaoh let the Israelites go. Nevertheless, from the start he also willed that Pharaoh not let the Israelites go. In Exodus 4: 21, God says 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.” At one point, Pharaoh himself acknowledges that his unwillingness to let the people go is sin: “Now therefore, forgive my sin” (Ex. 10: 17). Thus, we see that God commanded that Pharaoh do a thing that God himself willed not to allow. The good thing that God commanded he prevented. And the thing he brought about involved sin.

Some have tried to avoid this implication by pointing out that during the first five plagues the text does not say explicitly that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart but that it “was hardened” (Ex. 7: 22; 8: 19; 9: 7) or that Pharaoh hardened his own heart (Ex. 8: 15, 32), and that only in the latter plagues does it say explicitly that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Ex. 9: 12; 10: 20, 27; 11: 10; 14: 4). But this observation does not succeed in avoiding the evidence of two wills in God. Even if Forster and Marston are right that God was not willing for Pharaoh’s heart to be hardened during the first five plagues, they concede that for the last five plagues God did will this, at least in the sense of strengthening Pharaoh to continue in the path of rebellion. Thus, there is a sense in which God did will that Pharaoh go on refusing to let the people go, and there is a sense in which he did will that Pharaoh release the people. For he commanded, “Let my people go.” This illustrates why theologians talk about the “will of command” (“Let my people go!”) and the “will of decree” (“God hardened Pharaoh’s heart”).

The exodus is not a unique instance of God’s acting in this way. When the people of Israel reached the land of Sihon, king of Heshbon, Moses sent messengers “with words of peace, saying, ‘Let me pass through your land. I will go only by the road’” (Deut. 2: 26– 27). Even though this request should have led Sihon to treat the people of God with respect, as God willed for his people to be blessed rather than attacked, nevertheless, “Sihon the king of Heshbon would not let us pass by him, for the LORD your God hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate, that he might give him into your hand, as he is this day” (v. 30). In other words, it was God’s will (in one sense) that Sihon act in a way that was contrary to God’s will (in another sense) that Israel be blessed and not cursed.

The hardening work of God is not limited to non-Israelites. In fact, it plays a central role in the life of Israel in the present period of history. In Romans 11: 7– 8, Paul speaks of Israel’s failure to obtain the righteousness and salvation it desired: “Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, as it is written, ‘God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear, down to this very day.’” Even though it is the command of God that his people see, hear, and respond in faith (Isa. 42: 18), nevertheless God has his reasons for sending a spirit of stupor at times so that some will not obey his command.

Jesus expressed this same truth when he explained that one of his purposes in speaking in parables to the Jews of his day was to bring about this judicial blinding or stupor. In Mark 4: 11– 12 he says to his disciples, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that ‘they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.’” Here again God wills that a condition prevail that he regards as blameworthy. His will is that people turn and be forgiven (Mark 1: 15), but he acts to restrict the fulfillment of that will. Paul pictures this divine hardening as part of an overarching plan that will involve salvation for both Jew and Gentile. In Romans 11: 25– 26 he says to his Gentile readers: “Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved.” The fact that the hardening has an appointed end— until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in”— shows that it is part of God’s plan rather than a merely contingent event outside God’s purpose. Nevertheless, Paul expresses not only his but also God’s heart when he says in Romans 10: 1, “My heart’s desire and prayer to God for them [Israel] is that they may be saved.” God holds out his hands to a rebellious people (Rom. 10: 21), but ordains a hardening that consigns them for a time to disobedience.

This is the point of Romans 11: 31. Paul speaks to his Gentile readers again about the disobedience of Israel in rejecting their Messiah: “So they [Israel] too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you [Gentiles] they also may now receive mercy.” When Paul says that Israel was disobedient “in order that” the Gentiles might get the benefits of the gospel, whose purpose does he have in mind? It can only be God’s. The people of Israel did not conceive of their disobedience as a way of blessing the Gentiles or winning mercy for themselves in such a roundabout fashion. The point of Romans 11: 31, therefore, is that God’s hardening of Israel is not an end in itself, but is part of a saving purpose that will embrace all the nations. But in the short run, we have to say that God wills a condition (hardness of heart) that he commands people to strive against (“Do not harden your hearts,” Heb. 3: 8, 15; 4: 7).

[1] Jonathan Edwards, “Concerning the Decrees in General, and Election in Particular,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 2 (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), 534.


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