Is Everything “the Will of God”?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Thursday, September 30, 2010 at 7:05pm
QUESTION: Our pastor says that everything is God’s will. Is this true? How can we understand “God’s will”?
ANSWER: To know what your “pastor” means when he says that “everything is God’s will,” I would have to know if he is a Calvinist or not. Let me explain.
The NT words for “will,” as used in the context of “God’s will,” can mean one of three things: desire, purpose, or permission. In view of this variety of connotations, it is indeed correct to say, EVERYTHING THAT HAPPENS IS THE WILL OF GOD. But two different people can make this same assertion, and mean two entirely different things by it.
First, when a Calvinist makes this statement, he means that everything that happens is God’s will in the first two senses if the word “will,” namely, “desire” and “purpose.” Calvinists begin with the concept of an “eternal decree.” I.e., before anything else happens, God draws up in His mind a detailed, meticulous blueprint that includes everything that will ever happen within the creation He is about to bring into existence. In this sense the blueprint is comprehensive. Also, everything in the blueprint (decree), whether in the realm of nature or in the realm of human actions, is there by God’s sole choice. He is the only one who has any say about it, any input into it. We human creatures have NOTHING to do with it; the decree is completely unconditioned by anything outside of God. Whatever is in the decree is there because God WANTS it to be there, period. This includes all human actions and apparent decisions. Thus everything that happens is the will of God in the sense that He DESIRES it.
This eternal decree is also described as efficacious, or causative. I.e., whatever takes place in our world happens because it was in the decree, period. God put it there because he wants it to happen, and because it is His eternal purpose to MAKE it happen. That is what world history is: God turning His eternal decree into reality. Thus everything that happens is the will of God in the sense that it is part of His PURPOSE. And if it is His purpose, He will make sure that it happens. Whatever happens is desired by God, purposed by God, and in the end caused by God. Out of this system we get the common belief that “everything happens for a reason,” or “there’s a purpose for everything.”
One Calvinist says that God has a “predetermined plan” for everything. “It is that which WILL HAPPEN. It is inevitable, unconditional, immutable, irresistible, comprehensive, and purposeful…. It includes everything—even sin and suffering. It involves everything—even human responsibility and human decisions” (J. G. Howard, “Knowing God’s Will,” Zondervan 1976, p. 12). Another says that “the final answer to the question why a thing is and why it is as it is must ever remain: ‘God willed it,’ according to his absolute sovereignty” (H. Bavinck, “The Doctrine of God,” Eerdmans 1951, p. 371).
In my judgment the above approach to “the will of God” is entirely false. SOME things happen because God desires and purposes them, but not everything. It is especially important to know that the word “will” can also mean “permit, allow.” When we understand this we can truly say that EVERYTHING THAT HAPPENS IS THE WILL OF GOD, but not in the same sense!
Of course God does decree or purpose some things to happen, especially things relating to creation and redemption. The cross, for example, was predetermined (Acts 2:23). But because God created this world to be inhabited by free-will creatures, most things that happen in it are not purposed by God but rather PERMITTED by Him. God desires us free-will creatures to do many things that we do not do (e.g., 2 Peter 3:9), and He desires us NOT to do many things that we do (commit sins, especially). Thus His will in the sense of “desire” does not always happen. But even in these kinds of cases, whatever happens does so ONLY because God PERMITS it to happen.
James 4:13-15 clearly identifies this aspect of the divine will: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.’ Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that.’” Here, “if the Lord wills” means “if the Lord permits” in the same sense as Acts 18:21 and 1 Cor. 4:19 (see Rom. 1:10; 15:32; 1 Peter 4:19). The point is that God COULD PREVENT anything that is about to happen if He should choose to do so; and sometimes, according to His purposive will, He does just that (Luke 12:20).
But in most cases he wills to ALLOW it to happen according to our own plans and choices, thus allowing our free choices to determine our own destinies. Still, even when God is PERMITTING such things to happen as the result of our own wills, He is willing them to happen in the sense that he is permitting them to happen. So even these things are the will of God—but NOT in the sense that He is purposing or causing them. They are the result of his permissive will only.
So—what does your pastor mean when he says that “everything is God’s will”? If he means that God has decreed everything and is causing everything according to His own eternal purpose, this is not Biblical. But if he means that some things are God’s will in the sense that he purposes and causes them, but other things are God’s will only in the sense that He permits them, then he is correct. The latter is the Biblical view.
[Some Calvinists say that some things (usually sins) happen only because of God’s permissive will, but the concept of true permission is incompatible with the eternal decree to which they are committed. Calvinists thus must always redefine permission until it is meaningless or contradictory. More than once I have heard Calvinists use the expression “efficacious permission”—an obvious contradiction of terms.]
For more details on the content of this note, see my book, “What the Bible Says about God the Ruler,” chapter 8, “The Will of God” (pp. 299-329).