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When God is Pleased to Decree His Own Displeasure

One of the more crucial truths of Scripture with which people often struggle is the distinction Calvinists make between God’s revealed will and his secret will, or between his will of command and his will of decree. What bothers people is the way we insist that one “will” may be contrary to or different from another. Continue reading . . .

One of the more crucial truths of Scripture with which people often struggle is the distinction Calvinists make between God’s revealed will and his secret will, or between his will of command and his will of decree. What bothers people is the way we insist that one “will” may be contrary to or different from another.

In saying this we are arguing that there are two differing ways in which God may be said to “will” something. Or again, God’s inclination toward one event may be different from his inclination toward another. Here is how Jonathan Edwards explains it:

“His will of decree is his inclination to a thing, not as to that thing absolutely and simply, but with respect to the universality of things that have been, are, or shall be. So God, though he hates a thing as it is simply, may incline to it with reference to the universality of things. Though he hates sin in itself, yet he may will to permit it for the greater promotion of holiness in this universality, including all things and at all times” (Miscellany 170; Yale, 13:323).

What Edwards means is that there are things that God hates absolutely and simply, solely because of his character as holy and right and true. Many things are inherently evil and God never “wills” them to occur because of what they are in themselves or because of how they offend his holy nature. If he “wills” them at all it is only because they serve a role in the larger picture of God’s overall purpose in redemptive history. This “larger picture” is what he means by “the universality of things.”

So, for example, he hates perjury and murder, in and of themselves. There is nothing in them, as evil acts, that might incline God to them. His will of command is that they be avoided. But God nevertheless ordained that Christ should be perjured and slaughtered by the wickedness of evil men in order that the “universality” of things might be more effectively served. That is to say, what God hates in itself he decrees in order to accomplish a greater and more glorious purpose: in this case, the salvation of sinners.

Again, as Edwards says, God “may incline to suffer [endure] that which is unharmonious in itself, for the promotion of universal harmony or for the beautifying of the harmony that there is in the universality, and making of it shine the brighter” (ibid.).

Thus, God’s secret or decretive will is sometimes that his revealed will be violated (as in the crucifixion of his Son). He is pleased to decree that his own pleasure be violated, not because he takes pleasure in the violation per se, but with a view to how that violation might serve the larger and grander purpose that he is pursuing in the world.

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