One theme that all parts of Scripture take up in one way or another is the will of God. God's will is as vast as his entire plan for creation, and from the standpoint of objective content, it seems to be settled and unchanging. Old and New Testament writers can thus refer to God's will as if its existence is accepted by all. But though it may seem to have the character of a broad blueprint, in practical applications it is expressed in specific terms. God's will can also be viewed from its active side as his conscious "deciding, " "willing, " and "choosing" to do something.
The Old Testament. The affirmation that there exists with the God of Israel a will that is resolute and bears on his actions and the life of his people is made in all parts of the Old Testament. The impression created is that he has worked and continues to interact with his creation according to a design. Psalm 135:6 announces that "the Lord does whatever pleases him." His will is also the pattern to be followed in life by his people.
The will of God is not simply a passive plan, the blueprint for his creation. Rather, very often the Old Testament describes God as accomplishing his will. In this we glimpse the sovereign control he exerts over nations and individuals as well as the imperturbable certainty that characterizes his will. Broadly speaking, "Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him" ( Psalm 115:3 ; 135:6 ). More specifically, his will applies to nations ( Isa 48:14 ) as well as to decisions made about individuals ( 1 Sam 2:25 ). What God has planned (his will), he himself will bring to pass. Consequently, the development in understanding of the will of God in the Old Testament reveals that God in one sense may be seen as the initiator in the execution of his will and that this may involve the events that make up human history. Human history is never regarded as beyond his control. This includes not only the sweeping developments that affect whole nations, but also the specific events that touch individual lives.
For this reason, the people of Israel and individuals are to align their lives with and do the will of God. Psalm 40:8 becomes a programmatic statement in this respect: "I desire to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart." In this text the psalmist brings together two essential elements in describing the ideal life of obedience to God. God requires certain patterns of behavior in response to his covenant. The law is the articulation of the ethical requirements of God's will. This pattern is also taken up in the "new covenant" passage of Jeremiah 31:31-34: doing God's law (will) is the essence of the appropriate life of response to God's covenant. For God's will to be done, it had first to be known and understood by his people: "Teach me to do your will, for you are my God" ( Psalm 143:10 ). Through Moses, the judges, and the prophets, God made known his will and led the people in applying it in everyday situations. In one case, the application of God's will to a specific situation meant putting away foreign wives ( Ezra 10:11 ). When people take action it is to be done in awareness that God's will is to be the guide and that it cannot be thwarted ( Job 42:2 ): thus before taking action, David said to the people, "If it seems good to you, and if it is the will of the Lord our God, let us " ( 1 Chron 13:2 ).
The concept of God's will is developed specifically along theological lines, in reference to salvation, in the Servant passages in Isaiah. God selected Cyrus to carry out his purpose, which would allow the city of Jerusalem and the temple to be rebuilt ( 44:28 ). Here God's will is executed in a historical event; moreover, that act is soteriological for through it God's people experience salvation. The song of the Suffering Servant reveals that "it was the Lord's will to crush him" ( 53:10 ). This expression of the will of God, his resolute plan, however, takes its meaning from 42:1-9 and 49:1-7, which make it clear that God's purpose is the deliverance of Israel and the Gentile nations, and that somehow the suffering of the Servant plays a role within this plan. Again, historical events are seen to have saving significance as they develop out of the determined will of God. Finally, the execution of God's salvific will, the "mission" of the redemption of Israel and the nations, is linked to the proclamation of God's efficacious word: "so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire" ( 55:11 ). God's will includes the plan of salvation.
The New Testament. The will of God as a superstructure for God's intervention in the affairs of humankind and for all of life was a belief that shaped much of the early church's outlook on theology and life. In addition to the influence of the Old Testament, Jesus' own life, ministry, and teaching undoubtedly provided a formative influence.
Jesus' life and teaching as recorded in the Gospels bear witness to the importance of the concept of the will of God for his understanding of his own place and that of his followers in redemptive history. Jesus modeled for his disciples a life lived in perfect conformity with God's will, and demonstrated that this life did not always take the easy course. The poignant Gethsemane scene, recorded by Matthew, Mark, and Luke (with slight variations), depicts this most clearly. As Jesus prayed to the Father, he acknowledged both the strength of his own will and his commitment to God's: "My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done" ( Matthew 26:39 Matthew 26:42 ; cf. Mark 14:36 ; Luke 22:42 ). Both Jesus and the Gospel writers knew that God's will concerning the Messiah's death was specific. But John especially characterizes the whole of Jesus' ministry in terms of conformity with the will of God. At one point Jesus said to his disciples, "My food is to do the will of him who sent me" ( John 4:34 ). His ministry is described as the outworking of God's will: "I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge; and my judgment is just, because I seek to do not my own will but the will of him who sent me" ( 5:30 NRSV; cf. 6:38-40 ).
If Jesus was to do God's will, so were his disciples. The prayer that Jesus taught them made God's will a central concern in the life of discipleship. They were to petition God that his kingdom might come and his will be done on earth as it is in heaven ( Matt 6:10 ). The coming of the kingdom, God's power in Christ and then, through the Holy Spirit, in his church, would mean the manifestation of God's will on the earthly plane. The implication contained in the petition extends to the conduct of the disciples, as the Sermon on the Mount's context reveals. Thus, the message of the kingdom of God and the concept of God's will are joined together. In fact, kinship with Jesus is demonstrated not by correct doctrine but by doing God's will ( Matt 12:50 ; Mark 3:35 ). Equally, membership in God's kingdom is demonstrated not by good intentions but by the actual execution of God's will ( Matt 7:21 ; 21:31 ; Luke 12:47 ). Obedience to the will of God challenges and supersedes legalistic obedience to religious rules, which through concretization have become meaningless and even hinder the pursuit of a knowledge of God ( John 9:31 ). Ultimately, the readiness of an individual to acknowledge and then do God's will determines whether that person will be able to apprehend the truth of Jesus ( John 7:17 ).
In the thought of the early church, as represented by Paul and other New Testament writers, the will of God continues to have a prominent place.
God's Will and the Direction of Life. At its most basic level, belief in an all-encompassing will of God means the belief that things are moving in a direction such as Romans 1:9-10 ("I remember you in my prayers at all times; and I pray now at last by God's will the way may be opened for me to come to you"), Romans 15:32 ("so that by God's will I may come to you"), and jas 4:15 ("Instead, you ought to say, If it is the Lord's will, we will live and do this or that'"). The early Christians held that God's will might supervene in the lives of his people and bring a change to human plans. For God's will cannot be resisted ( Rom 9:19 ). Consequently, the Christian's aim is to live according to the perfect will of God and to pray according to it ( 1 John 5:14 ). In many cases this may exceed the ability of the believer, but the Holy Spirit is capable, who "intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will" ( Rom 8:27 ).
God's Will and the Plan of Salvation. Receiving special emphasis is the place of the plan of salvation within God's will. The adoption as children ( Eph 1:5 ) and inheritance of the blessings of redemption (v. 11) are according to God's counsel and will. The basis of salvation, the crucifixion of God's son Jesus, is explicitly described as the outworking of God's will ( Acts 2:23 ; 4:28 ; Gal 1:4 ). In this way, Jesus' death becomes integral to God's plan, rather than being an unforeseen event to be fit in whatever way possible. Furthermore, the redemptive will of God, which began long ago in the promises to Abraham, has proceeded without change through each stage of the plan ( Heb 6:17 ). Like Abraham, others played significant roles in the outworking of God's will to save ( Acts 13:36 ); at each point God's will was determinative and could not be circumvented ( Luke 7:30 ). Paul viewed his own call to apostleship, which was to bring salvation to the Gentiles ( Titus 1:1 ), in precisely these terms. Nearly all of his letters emphasize that it was God's will that established him in his ministry ( 1 Cor 1:1 ; 2 Cor 1:1 ; Eph 1:1 ; Col 1:1 ; 2 Tim 1:1 ; cf. Gal 1:1 ; 1 Tim 1:1 ; Titus 1:1 ).
Does the New Testament teach that it is God's will that all be saved, and therefore none will be lost? Two passages relate God's will to the expansiveness of the salvation plan. First Timothy 2:3-4 states, "God our Savior wills (thelei) all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth." Second Peter 3:9 expresses a similar sentiment: "The Lord does not will (boulomenos) anyone to perish but that everyone might come to repentance." It should be emphasized that neither text says that all will be saved regardless of their disposition toward the gospel. In the first text, "to come to a knowledge of the truth" is a formula that means to make a rational decision about the gospel, that is, to respond to the gospel message. The second text similarly relates God's will to save the all-inclusive "anyone" to the volitional element involved in repentance. Consequently, while these texts tell us that God's will to save extends to all people, and that he desires to save rather than to condemn, they do not remove the necessary element of the faith-response to the gospel.
The Christian Life as a Continuous Response to God's Will. God's will applies to every part of the church's and believer's lives. Occasionally, thelema [qevlhma], meaning "what is acceptable, " occurs alone. The strong connection of the term with God's will makes it almost certain that in such cases ( Rom 2:18 ; James 4:15 ) it stands as an abbreviation for God's will. Christian living and "doing the will of God" are one and the same and are not to be separated. In general terms, the summary of faithful Christian living, given by the writer of Hebrews, is "doing the will of God": "For you need endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised" ( 10:36 NRSV). John describes the life of faithfulness, which demonstrates true Christianity, similarly as doing the will of God ( 1 John 2:17 ). Viewed more specifically, for the slave, being a Christian within the social institution of slavery called for obedience to the masterthis was doing the will of God from the heart ( Eph 6:6 ). Suffering as Christians is an aspect of Christian existence that corresponds to God's will ( 1 Peter 4:19 ).
Other specific applications of God's will reveal still more clearly how it is relevant to all areas of human life. First Thessalonians 4:3 states that God's will is "our sanctification, " which Paul then goes on to apply in the specific principle "abstain from fornication." Later in the same letter the will of God is said to be thankfulness in all situations ( 5:18 ). It is God's will that a Christian's conduct remove any cause for slander by unbelievers ( 1 Peter 2:15 ). Doing good deeds and sharing what we have with one another are "acceptable to God, " that is, accords with his will ( Heb 13:15-16 ). Finally, the will of God, which Paul desires his people to know and do in Romans 12:2, is spelled out specifically in terms of mutual service among Christians in the passage that follows. In no case do the specifics or even any combination of them exhaust or fully describe the will of God. They merely show the directions its practical application will take.
The will of God must be done by Christians if they are genuine Christians, but for this to occur two things are required. First, it must be taught and understood. Paul, for one, was chosen by God to know God's will ( Acts 22:14 ). He also endeavored to make all of God's will (counsel) known, both theology and Christian ethics ( Acts 20:27 ). His prayer for believers was that they "be filled with a knowledge of God's will" ( Col 1:9 ; 4:12 ). And he admonished foolish believers to make gaining an understanding of God's will their chief aim ( Eph 5:17 ).
Second, God must equip the believer to be able to execute the divine will in appropriate behavior. Human inability continues to coexist alongside divine sovereignty. This means that God must give the enlightenment necessary for the believer to perceive what the will of God is ( Col 1:9b ). But then he must also enable his children in each situation to carry it out to completion: "Now may the God of peace, who brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus make you complete in everything good so that you may do his will, working among us that which is pleasing in his sight" ( Heb 13:20-21 ; NRSV ).
The Will of God and Guidance. Within the church today there are various views about how specifically God's will may be known and followed in matters of life's decisions. In the Old Testament God provided tools (the Urim and Thummim) for discerning his direction in various situations. At times he "spoke, " whether in dreams, through the burning bush, or in the "still small voice" that came to Elijah. In the New Testament similar events of guidance are recorded. It becomes clear that the church and individual believers are to seek to know God's will and base their actions on it. But while a general pattern emerges that tells us that God is in control of his church and the whole world and interested in each aspect of his children's lives, we are not told specifically that God will give us a "yes" or "no" to each question we might ask. Much of the biblical teaching about his will pertains to behavior and his plan of salvation. With regard to the first, "seeking" his will means (1) learning what God's Word says about aspects of our response to him and, (2) in concert with the church, determining how that teaching is to be applied in new historical and cultural contexts.
But the mystical element so obvious in ScriptureGod's direct guidance in times of need or searchingcannot be ruled out today. We are to seek God with our questions about vocation, but he may direct through the wisdom of church and family leaders, as well as through circumstances. What is normative is difficult to say. But it is certainly incorrect to say that God's will does not apply to the small areas of our lives. It is also incorrect to say that we should expect God to reveal his will always in a specific "yes" or "no" through internal prompting or external signs, or to think that the reality of God's will relieves us of the responsibility of decision making. We are left "in the middle, " knowing that we are to seek God's guidance through the Scriptures, prayer, the counsel of Christian leaders, and wise assessment of the options before us and knowing that he promises to guide us, but not being able to limit his means for doing this.
Philip H. Towner
Bibliography. G. J. Botterweck, TDOT, 5:92-107; G. Friesen, Decision Making and the Will of God: A Biblical Alternative to the Traditional View; E. Lohmeyer, The Lord's Prayer; D. Müller, NIDNTT, 3:1015-23; G. Schrenk, TDNT, 1:629-37; 3:46-62; E. Stauffer, New Testament Theology.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Will of God'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".