July 3, 2005

John Frame on the Will of God


God’s power works according to his will. Theologians tend to regard God’s will as his faculty for making decisions, as they regard his mind as his faculty of thought. But, as we saw in the preceding chapter, Scripture rarely, if ever, speaks of a divine faculty of thought distinct from the thoughts themselves, or distinct from other faculties, such as his will. Similarly, although Scripture often refers to God’s will (much more often than to God’s mind), it does not typically speak of his will as some metaphysical or psychological entity in God that enables him to make decisions and exercise power. Rather, God’s will consists of the decisions themselves. The decision maker, as we would expect from the doctrine of simplicity, is not some part of God, or some faculty within God, but God himself, the person. God is the one who acts; his will is what he decides.

Although God’s will has many dimensions, as we shall see, a simple but accurate definition would be this: God’s will is anything he wants to happen.

Old Testament English translations rarely use the term will in reference to God, though ratson (“pleasure, delight, favor”) is so translated in Psalms 40:8 and 143:10. In the New Testament, thelēma (“wish, will”) is used fairly often in this way, but boulē; and boulēma (“counsel”) much less so. However, the concept is often expressed by the term pleasure (or good pleasure), which usually translates the Hebrew root hafets (as in Isa. 44:28; 46:10) and the Greek eudokeō (as in Eph. 1:5, 9; Phil. 2:13). God’s will is what pleases him. The words thinking and planning (Hebrew hashav) and choosing (Hebrew bahar) are also relevant. And way (Heb. derek, Gk. hodos) is found many times in Scripture referring to God’s will (almost always in the preceptive sense; see below). In the preceptive sense, will and way are often interchangable (though not entirely synonymous) with the broad vocabulary of revelation: ordinances, testimonies, laws, statutes, commandments, words, etc.

These terms are used more or less interchangeably. The differences of nuance between the terms are not, I think, of doctrinal importance. One could not argue, for example, that one term more typically denotes God’s will as decree and another term God’s will as precept. If this distinction is legitimate (see below), both sides of it are expressed by each of the biblical terms.

Given these definitions of God’s will (what he wants to happen, what pleases him), it is not wrong to say that God wills his own being (his necessary will) and also wills everything in creation (his free will). I don't know any passage of scripture that makes this distinction explicitly, but I have given reasons to distinguish between necessity and freedom in God (in chap. 12), and we have also discussed necessity and freedom with regard to God’s speech and knowledge (in chap. 22). God’s necessary will includes his willing of the intra-Trinitarian relations: The Father willingly begets the Son, and the Father and Son willingly bring forth the Spirit, who proceeds from them. See our later discussion of the Trinity for more details of these relationships.


Among human beings, there are many different kinds of wants and pleasures, and of course we tend to arrange them in priorities. Some things we want more than other things. Some we cannot achieve, so we settle for others. We postpone fulfilling some desires until others are realized. Sometimes one must be realized before another. Some are not compatible with others, and so we must choose between them. For these reasons, some of our desires are unfulfilled, temporarily or permanently.

You may recall the illustration in chapter 8 of Mike, who forces Billy to vandalize the schoolhouse. We saw there the ambiguity of the phrase strongest desire. Faced with Mike’s threats, Billy’s strongest desire in the short term was to do Mike’s bidding. But in the long term, he wanted Mike to leave him alone.

Often our prioritizing of desires is due to our weakness, as in the above case, but sometimes not. Someone might desire an ice-cream cone and have easy access to one, but voluntarily postpone fulfilling that desire until finishing a piece of work. He might value finishing the job more than eating the ice-cream cone, or perhaps not. Maybe he actually values the ice cream more, but believes he will get more enjoyment from it after the job is done. So, our decision-making process is often complicated. The relationships between our many desires, and between the various means of achieving them, are complex.

Here we see some analogy to the complexities of God’s will. God also has many desires, variously valued and prioritized. Some of God’s desires he achieves immediately. But since he has determined to create a world in time and has given to that world a history and a goal, some of his desires, by virtue of his own eternal plan, must await the passing of time. Further, there are some good things that, by virtue of the nature of God’s plan, will never be realized. I indicated in chapter 8 that God’s plan is consistent with itself, respecting the integrity of creatures. If God has ordained that Joe will have exactly three children, that excludes the possibility that he will have five, even though two more children might be a good thing. And, as we saw in chapter 9, God’s broad intentions for history may exclude the blessing of a world existing without any history of evil.

So theologians have made various distinctions within the larger concept of the will of God. God’s will is, of course, one; but since it is a complex, some have distinguished different aspects of it—different “wills.” We should be careful with this language, but it does make it easier for us to consider the complications of our topic.

One distinction is between God’s antecedent and consequent wills. God’s general valuation of some things as good we may call his antecedent will; his specific choices among those good things (in view of the overall nature of the world he intends to make) may be called his consequent will. That distinction is legitimate, since God’s eternal plan respects the integrity of the beings he intends to create and takes them into account. Again, God may genuinely value many states of affairs that are simply not compatible with the “story” he has chosen to tell (chaps. 8–9).

God’s thinking, of course, is not a temporal process. All his thoughts are simultaneous, as we shall see in the following chapter. Nevertheless, it is helpful to represent God’s thought as if it occurred in two stages: first, God evaluates every possible state of affairs; second, God chooses among these values, rejecting some and accepting others for the sake of his historical drama.

However, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Arminian theologians have used the antecedent-consequent distinction to make room for libertarian freedom. On their view, God’s antecedent will includes the salvation of all men. His consequent will, however, awaits the (libertarian) free decisions of human beings. Those who choose to believe, God blesses; those who do not, he condemns to eternal punishment. These blessings and curses come by his consequent will.

In my view, these theologians are right in saying that God antecedently wants everyone to be saved. We shall look more closely at this question later, but universal salvation is certainly a good thing, a desirable state of affairs. They are also right to claim that, in view of the actual historical situation, God does not bring that result to pass. There is no harm in calling this second volition “consequent.” In his eternal plan, God does determine not to achieve certain good things, at least partly because of the nature of the creatures he intends to create. The Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Arminian theologians are wrong, however, in saying that God’s consequent will is dependent on the (libertarian) free decisions of man. I have given many reasons for denying the truth of libertarianism.


Reformed theologians have often rejected the antecedent-consequent distinction, because of its association with libertarian freedom. But they have adopted a rather similar distinction, between God’s decretive and preceptive wills. God’s decretive will is simply what in chapter 16 we called God’s decree. It is his eternal purpose, by which he foreordains everything that comes to pass. God’s preceptive will is his valuations, particularly as revealed to us in his Word (his “precepts”). The decretive will focuses on God’s lordship attribute of control, the preceptive will on the lordship attribute of authority. God’s decretive will cannot be successfully opposed; what God has decreed will certainly take place. It is possible, however, for creatures to disobey God’s preceptive will—and they often do so.

The decretive will is sometimes called “the will of God’s good pleasure” (beneplacitum). This is somewhat misleading, because scripture speaks of God’s “pleasure” in both decretive and preceptive senses: for example, decretive in Psalm 51:18 and Isaiah 46:10, and preceptive in Psalms 5:4 and 103:21. Some have also called the decretive will God’s hidden or secret will, but that too is misleading, since God reveals some of his decrees through his Word.

For that reason, I hesitate also to call the preceptive will the revealed will (signum, “signified will”), though that language has often been used for this concept. Preceptive is also somewhat misleading, for it does not always have to do with literal precepts (God’s law, commandments). Sometimes God’s preceptive will refers not to precepts, but to states of affairs that God sees as desirable, but which he chooses not to being about (as in Ezek. 18:23; 2 Peter 3:9). Still I will use preceptive because of customary usage, and because I don’t know of any better term.

How does this distinction compare with the antecedent-consequent distinction? God’s preceptive will, like the antecedent will, consists of his valuation of every possible and actual state of affairs. His decretive, like the consequent will, determines what will actually happen. The difference is that the concept of a decretive will excludes libertarianism. God’s decisions as to what will actually happen is not based on his foreknowledge of the libertarian free choices of men. It is based instead on his decision to write his historical drama in a certain way.

It is therefore disingenuous for Arminians to criticize Calvinists for teaching “two wills” in God. Arminianism—indeed, all theologies—recognize some complexity in God’s will (though confessing its ultimate unity), and theologians of all persuasions have sometimes talked about multiple wills in God. Arminians and even open theists also like to distinguish God’s “will of permission,” concerning which Paul Helm says,
Suppose . . . there are areas of human action (including human evil action) which God not only does not will, but which he does not know will happen until the events occur. Nevertheless, the events in these areas are permitted by God, albeit in a very loose and weak sense. For if God did not allow them, and in some sense support them, then they would not occur. . . . God then wills (permits) what he does not will (comand). . . . So it is not an advantage of that view that it avoids having to think of God having two “wills.”
Does Scripture warrant this distinction? Here are some passages that use the words thought, intent, pleasure, purpose, counsel, and will to refer to God’s decretive will:
You intented to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. (Gen. 50:20)

At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure.” (Matt. 11:25–26)

This man 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)

Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden. One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?” (Rom. 9:18–19)

In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will. (Eph. 1:11)
(Cf. Pss. 51:18; 115:3; Isa. 46:10; Jer. 49:20; 50: 45; Dan. 4:17; James 1:18; Rev. 4:11.) I would say that God’s “paths” in Romans 11:33 should also be taken in the decretive sense, although elsewhere the term is almost always preceptive.

Here are some passages in which these terms are used in a preceptive sense:
Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. (Matt. 7:21)

Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. (Eph. 5:17; cf. 6:6)
(Cf. Pss. 5:4; 103:21; Matt. 12:50; John 4:34; 7:17; Rom. 12:2; 1 Thess. 4:3; 5:18; Heb. 13:21; 1 Peter 4:2.) These passages refer literally to the precepts of God.

The following passages refer, not to precepts as such, but to desirable (and thus preceptive) states of affairs that God does not ordain:
Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? Declares the Sovereign Lord. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live? (Ezek. 18:23)

The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9)
There are other passages in which God expresses a desire for repentance from human beings, which may or may not be forthcoming: Isaiah 30:18; 65:2; Lamentations 3:31–36; Ezekiel 33:11; Hosea 11:7–8.


If God desires people to repent of sin, then certainly he desires them to be saved, for salvation is the fruit of such repentance. Some Calvinists, however, have denied this conclusion, reasoning that God cannot possibly desire something that never takes place. But I have dealt with that objection already. Scripture often represents God as desiring things that never take place. As we have seen, he wants all people to repent of sin, yet we know that many people never repent. And there are many other examples. God desires all people to turn from false gods and idols, hold his name in reverence, remember the Sabbath, honor their parents, and so on. But those desires are not always fulfilled.

The reason is that God’s “desires” in this sense are expressions of his preceptive will, not his decretive will. His decretive desires always come to pass; his preceptive desires are not always fulfilled. So there is nothing contrary to Calvinistic theology in the assertion that God wants everyone to be saved. Furthermore, there are specific passages that lead to this conclusion. We saw in chapter 20 that in some sense God is gracious and loving to all his creatures, including those that are unrighteous (Matt. 5:44–48 ). God sends rain and fruitful seasons to everybody and even “fills [their] hearts with joy” (Acts 14:17). God desires the best for his creatures, and the very best for them, of course, is salvation in Christ. In Deuteronomy 5:29, God expresses his desire in passionate terms:
Oh, that their hearts would be inclined to fear me and keep all my commands always, so that it might go well with them and their children forever! (cf. Deut. 32:29; Ps. 81: 13–14; Isa. 48:18 )
In these passages, God expresses an intense desire, not only for obedience, but also for the consequence of obedience, namely, the covenant blessing (cf. Ex. 20:12) of long life and prosperity. Ultimately, the covenant blessing is nothing less than heaven itself — eternal fellowship with God. Divine passion is even more obvious in Matthew 23:37 (Luke 13:34), where Jesus weeps over Jerusalem saying,
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.
The gathering here certainly includes the blessings of salvation. Jesus wants the people of Jerusalem to be gathered to him.

In the prophecy of Ezekiel, God’s desire for human repentance is also a desire that the repentant one will have life. Life is often a biblical summary of God’s salvation that brings us out of death (as in Eph. 2:1–7). Through Ezekiel, God says:
Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign Lord. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live? (Ezek. 18:23)

Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live! (vv. 31–32) Say to them, “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?” (33:11)
In Isaiah 45:22, God again cries out:
Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other.
Murray argues that the range of this plea is not universal in a merely ethnic sense (all nations, but not all individuals), but embraces all the individuals. Part of his argument is based on the fact that the verse (and the context) emphasizes the uniqueness of the true God and his prerogatives over his entire creation. His plea must be as broad as his lordship authority.

Second Peter 3:9 teaches the same desire on the part of God:
The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
Those who want to limit the reference of this passage to the elect sometimes focus on “you,” suggesting that this limits the reference to believers. Like other New Testament letters, this one is written to the church, and it presumes faith on the part of its readers. Yet, also like other letters, this one recognizes that professing believers are subject to many temptations in this life and that some do fall away. When they fall away permanently, they thereby show that they never had real faith. So, in addressing believers, Peter is not assuming that all his readers are among the elect. And “patience” (makrothymei) here is an attitude that, according to other passages, God shows to the reprobate (Rom. 2:4; 9:22). The passage itself makes no distinction between elect and reprobate.

So, Peter may be expressing God’s desire that everyone in the church will come to repentance, but if his focus is thus on the church, he is not distinguishing between elect and reprobate within the church. My own view, however, is that his thought in this verse goes beyond the church: “anyone” and “everyone” are not necessarily included among “you.” So, after describing God’s patience with his people in the church, Peter looks beyond them, asserting God’s desire for universal human repentance.

Murray does not deal with 1 Timothy 2:4, but it is much discussed in this connection. That verse says that God “wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” It is certainly plausible to take “all” here to refer to ethnic universalism (see the discussion of Isaiah 45:22, above), especially since verses 1 and 2 urge prayer “for everyone—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” Reformed commentators typically insist that verses 1–2 cannot be universal except in the sense “all sorts.” They then draw the conclusion that God desires the salvation of “all men without distinction of rank, race, or nationality,” but not the salvation of every individual.

But the parallel between the language here and that of passages like Isaiah 45:22 might lead us to question this interpretation. And, in my view, verses 1–2 do not have to be taken only as a universalism of classes of people. To pray for a king is at the same time to pray for his people as individuals. Hendricksen thinks it impossible that in verses 1–2 Paul could be asking prayer for every person on earth. There is no time, he thinks, to do this in more than a “very vague and global way.” But it would also be impossible to pray specifically for every king and magistrate on the face of the earth. In any case, Paul’s desire is simply that we pray for the nations in the spirit of God’s blessing to Abraham, that God’s grace will be applied to all people throughout the world and produce peace. The real barrier to taking 2:4 in a way similar to the other passages we have discussed is not verses 1–2, but verses 5–6:
For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself a ransom for all men—the testimony given in its proper time.
If we see verse 4 as indicating God’s desire for the salvation of every individual, must we not then take Jesus’ “ransom” also in a universalistic sense, contrary to the Reformed doctrine of limited atonement? But the point of verses 5–6, in my view, is very similar to the point made in Isaiah 45:22 and its context. Notice how in both Isaiah 45:22 and 1 Timothy 2:4–6, the thought moves from God’s desire that all be saved to the exclusiveness of God’s prerogatives and saving power. My own inclination is to take verses 5–6 not as enumerating those for whom atonement is made, but as describing the exclusiveness of God’s saving work in Christ. His ransom is for all men in the sense that there is no other.

If we read the passage in this way, there is no reason, dogmatic or exegetical, why we should not take verse 4 (which is so like the other verses we have explored) to indicate God’s desire for the salvation of everyone. I am inclined to take this position, though I don’t regard the question as fully closed. My main point, however, is that we should not allow our exegesis of this passage to be prejudiced by the dogmatic view that God cannot desire the salvation of all. If this passage does not teach such a desire, many other passages do.


Bavinck says:
Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Remonstrants, etc., proceed from the “expressed or signified will” [i.e., preceptive will]; they regard this as God’s real will consisting in this: that God does not will sin but merely permits it; that he wills the salvation of all men; that he offers grace to all; etc.; then, after man has decided, God conforms himself to that decision and determines what he wills, namely, salvation for those who believe, perdition for those who don’t believe. The “consequent will” follows man’s decision and is not the real, essential will of God; it is the act of God which is occassioned by man’s deportment. The Reformed, on the other hand, proceeded from “the will of God’s good pleasure” [i.e., his decretive will]; they regarded this as the real, the essential will of God. That will is always fulfilled; it always effects its object; it is eternal and immutable. The “expressed” or “signified” will [i.e., the preceptive will], on the contrary, is God’s precept revealed in the Law and in the Gospel; it is for us the rule of life.
Bavinck here presents an adequate summary of the differences between the Reformed and their major opponents. I cite him only to dissent from both parties in their desire to identify one will of God as the “real” will.

God’s decrees and his precepts both represent divine values. It is true that the decrees always take effect, whereas the precepts do not necessarily do so. That seems to give special honor to the decrees above the precepts. But one can also argue the other way: God’s precepts represent his ideals, which describe states of affairs that are often far more excellent than the world as it has been decreed. God’s precepts, for example, demand a world in which everyone honors the true God, in which everyone honors his parents, in which there is no murder or even murderous anger, etc. Would not such a world be better than the one in which we live?

God’s precepts also express goals, to which his decrees are means. The new heaven and new earth are a place where righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:13; cf. Matt. 6:33). So one could argue that God’s preceptive will is his “real” will, the one he seeks to achieve in this world through the history of redemption.

But I will not argue that point. Rather, I will insist that Scripture does not value one will above another, or compare one unfavorably to the other. The fact is that both these precepts and these decrees are divine desires and should be given highest honor. God’s precepts are an object of worship in the Psalms (56:4, 10) and are worthy of the most profound meditation (Ps. 1) and obedience (Ps. 119). God’s decrees represent his control, and his precepts represent his authority. We honor both equally as we honor the Lord.
John Frame, The Doctrine of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing, 2002), 528–538.

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