Dr. Ray E. Heiple, Jr.
Knowing and Doing the Will of God
For this is the will of God, your sanctification… 1 Thessalonians 4:3aNKJV
This morning we look once again at Question 157 of the Larger Catechism, which asks, “How is the word of God to be read?” It gives the answer, “The holy scriptures are to be read with an high and reverent esteem of them; with a firm persuasion that they are the very word of God, and that he only can enable us to understand them; with desire to know, believe, and obey the will of God revealed in them; with diligence, and attention to the matter and scope of them; with meditation, application, self-denial, and prayer.” Last week we looked at how to read God’s Word in reverent faith, calling upon Him to give us the grace to see and do what it says. Today we consider our duty to obey it.
How can I know God’s will for my life? Perhaps you have wrestled with this question or know someone who has. How do we find God’s will? Where should we look for it, and how can we be sure that it really is His will and not our own or someone else’s? For some, this is the most difficult question of their lives, which they believe only an immediate supernatural revelation of God can answer. From today’s question, however, it is obvious that the Westminster Divines did not share that perspective. For them, knowing the will of God was easy, for it is plainly revealed in the Bible to everyone who reads it. Thus, they exhort us to our duty to read the Scriptures “with desire to know, believe, and obey the will of God revealed in them.”
Some of the confusion with knowing and doing God’s will comes from not distinguishing the different ways in which the Bible speaks of God’s will. First, there is the decretive will of God which refers to God’s sovereign plan for all creation. Everything that happens in space and time is by the decretive will of God. Even the sins of wicked men are decreed by God in that he ordains and permits them to occur: “The LORD has made everything for its own purpose, even the wicked for the day of evil,” (Prov. 16:4). Even apart from the doctrine of predestination, simply the fact that God knows all future events and allows them to happen proves that by permission at least He wills all things to occur, for if He did not in any sense want something to happen He would exercise His almighty power and prevent it. The decretive will of God is something we must affirm and be thankful for, but it is not something we are to seek to know. The future is none of our business. It is God’s business and we are to trust Him for it. For this reason all superstitious attempts to uncover the future insult God’s wisdom and goodness.
Another way the Bible speaks of God’s will is when it refers to His will of disposition. Here we are told, not God’s sovereign plan for all things, but in what God delights. God tells us His delight in many places in Scripture: “I am the LORD, exercising lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth. For in these I delight,” says the LORD,” (Jer. 9:24). Likewise we learn in what God does not delight: “‘Do I have any pleasure in the death of the wicked,’ declares the Lord God, ‘rather than that he should turn from his ways and live?’” (Ezek. 18:23). All things being equal God would rather that all sinners would willingly turn from evil and obey Him. Yet, apart from God’s grace no one would. In salvation God gives His elect new hearts so that they repent and live, but He does not do this for all, for God’s purposes include not merely revealing His love and mercy to sinners, but also His hatred and wrath on account of sin. So even though God does not delight in seeing sinners embrace and perish in sin, He allows some to do so because this too is part of His plan.
Though God’s will of disposition teaches us about God’s character, it too does not show us His will for our lives. Where do we learn what God wants us to do? We learn it in God’s preceptive will, which is to say, His precepts or laws. Christian, the law of God is God’s will for your life! God wills that you obey Him in all situations and at all times. Obeying God is not obeying that feeling you get in your head that you reason, “This might be God.” No, where God has certainly and infallibly told you what to do is in His written commandments, and they cover every situation in which you can possibly find yourself. We need His wisdom and grace in order to rightly apply them, but we can never say, “It wasn’t my fault, I couldn’t find God’s will in that situation.” No, God’s will is always right before us; it is always to obey His written law. The better question we should be wrestling with is, “Why do I keep resisting God’s plainly revealed will?” May God give us the grace to admit His will, to love it, and then to walk in it!