The created image of God carries with it awesome responsibility and glory. It includes the ability to make meaningful moral choices ( Gen 1:26-27 ; 2:16-17 ). By grace, the freedom to use a created will as a moral agent is one of the key biblical distinctions between humans and the rest of the created order. The sovereignty of God is deepened in a radically personal way when creation is climaxed by persons who possess wills that can choose to either obey or disobey, to love or not to love. True sovereignty is neither arbitrary nor coercive; it allows other wills.
The perversion of the fallen will is revealed in the defiant attitude of all who build the blasphemous tower of Babel ( Gen 11:1-9 ). The story of redemption is founded on God's offer to humanity to return to the fullness of relationship lost in Eden, despite its radical consequences. Not surprisingly, this included a series of moral choices.
The core of sin is the independent use of mind and will to choose what is good or evil ( Genesis 3:5 Genesis 3:22 ). Faith and trust ultimately are tested at the level of intention ( Gen 17:1 ; 20:5-6 ). Intention in a certain direction is the basic meaning of the Hebrew term aba. It is intriguing that this term of willing determination is most often found in the negative"not willing" ( Exod 10:27 ; Isa 1:19-20 ). Its relation to the verb "to hear" (sama [a'm'x]) indicates that a preliminary intuition, an ability to comprehend, followed by "hearing, " which almost always means making decisive steps toward or against something or someone ( Eze 3:7 ).
It is remarkable that love for God has been commanded ( Deut 6:5 ). True love cannot be coerced. The obvious implication for this central response to Israel's fundamental statement of God's unique nature is the requirement of loyalty based on the ability to choose. The Western mind quickly shifts to a discussion of the partsheart, soul, and strength. But in the ancient Near East the unified conception of the human being resulted in a complete choice for Yahweh as the only true Lord. The personal attachment of one's being (heart), the direction of one's desires (soul), and the totality of one's devotion (might) have true meaning if there is personal freedom to love God by volitional choice ( Deut 30:15-20 ; cf. Joshua 23:11 ; 24:14 ).
Biblically, the heart (leb [bel]) refers primarily to the inner nature of a person, including will, thought, and emotions. Decisions are viewed as a setting of the heart ( 2 Chron 11:16 ; 12:14 ; Job 34:14 ). Intention is clearly conjoined with moral responsibility. Both good and evil are revealed prior to actions at the point of one's will ( Gen 6:5 ; Psalm 78:8 ). Thus, rebellion, hardness of heart, or the inner resistance of the will to comply with the obligations of the covenant required an inner transformation for peace to be restored. This is clearly indicated in David's prayer for an "undivided" heart for both fear and praise of God ( Psalm 86:11-12 ). Again, at base it is virtually impossible to separate God's will from the human. The reality of continued uncompelled service and sacrifice depends on the gracious action of God.
The willingness of Yahweh to choose ( 1 Sam 12:22 ) his own is responded too often by a misuse of will on Israel's part ( Neh 9:17 ; Hosea 5:11 ; Zech 7:11-12 ). God's relationship with his people was restored when they responded to his grace by trying to observe his law with all their hearts. This restored relationship was evidenced by God's desire for and pleasure with freewill offerings ( Exod 35:29 ; Lev 23:18 ). The free movement of the will of each party is evident in Israel's understanding of what brought true pleasure ( Psalm 51:15-17 ). There is a willingness that is pleasurable to God ( Malachi 1:8 Malachi 1:13 ).
An appraisal of the evidence in the Old Testament reveals a primary focus on the will of God. Humanity images God when it deliberately chooses. Covenantal loyalty and commitment are defined by mutual wills and the choice to love even though, as in the case of Israel, one party is eternally superior ( Deut 7:7-9 ).
The New Testament only deepens the notions of the significance of human choices that the Old Testament initiated. God's sovereign will is affirmed and the gracious gift of human determination within the context of divine comprehension and direction remain intact throughout.
There are two major word groups: (1) inner volitional purposes or decisions (boule [boulhv]), mentally directed intention (boulema [bouvlhma]), and deliberated and free decision of the will (boulemai); (2) desire, wish, or will (thelo [qevlw]) and will or intention (thelema [qevlhma]). These two are used interchangeably for all the Old Testament notions we have observed. It is interesting that thelo [qevlw] outstrips boulomai [bouvlomai] in use (207 usages to 37). Freedom of decision in ways not directly related to God are evident throughout the New Testament. Joseph "did not want" (thelo [qevlw]) to expose Mary, so he had deliberated or, "had in mind" (boulomai [bouvlomai]), to divorce her. The passages from both word-groups pertaining to human volition underscore the biblical tradition that though God alone comprehends all the data, there is very little evidence for arbitrary and impersonal coercion of human wills. ( Luke 7:30 , "rejected God's purpose" 1 Cor 4:5 ). God's will or desire is perfect, but it is large enough to incorporate and circumvent human will where necessary ( Acts 2:23 ).
As in every area of human life, Jesus is the supreme example of perfect obedience to the will of God without the diminution of personal choice. The use of will in both John and Luke provides not only christological implications but human ramifications as well. A proper interpretation of the prayer in Gethsemane disallows predetermination without the consent of the Savior ( Luke 22:42 ). Jesus prays, "Father, if you are willing (boule [boulhv]) yet not my will (thelema [qevlhma]), but yours be done."
The crucial issues pertaining to human will are revealed here. Divine will is primarily revealed to humans as the desire to offer salvation. Humanity is invited to respond to that will and provision. Once a person chooses the will of God over his or her own desires, much of what transpires is closely related to the cross. If the will of God pertains primarily to the work of redemption, then that will must become the believer's main intention also. The impact of bearing the will of God shows itself in all the ethical and moral choices a believer makes ( Matt 22:37 ; Mark 12:30 ; Php 2:13 ; Heb 13:21 )
M. William Ury
Bibliography. A. P. Hayman, SJT37:1 (1984): 13-22.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible
Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Will'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".