Question: “What is the difference between God’s sovereign will and God’s perfect will?”
Answer: When speaking of God’s will, many people see three different aspects of it in the Bible. The first aspect is known as God’s decretive, sovereign, or hidden will. This is God’s “ultimate” will. This facet of God’s will comes out of the recognition of God’s sovereignty and the other aspects of God’s nature. This expression of God’s will focuses on the fact that God sovereignly ordains everything that comes to pass. In other words, there is nothing that happens that is outside of God’s sovereign will. This aspect of God’s will is seen in verses like Ephesians 1:11, where we learn that God is the one “who works all things according to the counsel of His will,” and Job 42:2, “I know that You can do everything, And that no purpose of Yours can be withheld from You.” This view of God’s will is based on the fact that, because God is sovereign, His will can never be frustrated. Nothing happens that is beyond His control.
This understanding of His sovereign will does not imply that God causes everything to happen. Rather, it acknowledges that, because He is sovereign, He must at least permit or allow whatever happens to happen. This aspect of God’s will acknowledges that, even when God passively permits things to happen, He must choose to permit them, because He always has the power and right to intervene. God can always decide to either permit or stop the actions and events of this world. Therefore, as He allows things to happen, He has “willed” them in this sense of the word.
While God’s sovereign will is often hidden from us until after it comes to pass, there is another aspect of His will that is plain to us: His preceptive or revealed will. As the name implies, this facet of God’s will means that God has chosen to reveal some of His will in the Bible. The preceptive will of God is God’s declared will concerning what we should or should not do. For example, because of the revealed will of God, we can know that it is God’s will that we do not steal, that we love our enemies, that we repent of our sins, and that we be holy as He is holy. This expression of God’s will is revealed both in His Word and in our conscience, through which God has written His moral law upon the hearts of all men. The laws of God, whether found in Scripture or in our hearts, are binding upon us. We are accountable when we disobey them.
Understanding this aspect of God’s will acknowledges that while we have the power and ability to disobey God’s commands, we do not have the right to do so. Therefore, there is no excuse for our sin, and we cannot claim that by choosing to sin we are simply fulfilling God’s sovereign decree or will. Judas was fulfilling God’s sovereign will in betraying Christ, just as the Romans who crucified Him were. That does not justify their sins. They were no less evil or treacherous, and they were held accountable for their rejection of Christ (Acts 4:27-28). Even though in His sovereign will God allows or permits sin to happen, we are still accountable to Him for that sin.
The third aspect of God’s will that we see in the Bible is God’s permissive or perfect will. This facet of God’s will describes God’s attitude and defines what is pleasing to Him. For example, while it is clear that God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, it is also clear that He wills or decrees their death. This expression of God’s will is revealed in the many verses of Scripture which indicate what God does and does not take pleasure in. For example, in 1 Timothy 2:4 we see that God desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth,” yet we know that God’s sovereign will is that “no one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:44).
If we are not careful, we can easily become preoccupied or even obsessed with finding the “will” of God for our lives. However, if the will we are seeking is His secret, hidden, or decretive will, we are on a foolish quest. God has not chosen to reveal that aspect of His will to us. What we should seek to know is the perceptive or revealed will of God. The true mark of spirituality is when we desire to know and live according to the will of God as revealed in Scripture, and that can be summarized as “be holy for I am Holy” (1 Peter 1:15-16). Our responsibility is to obey the revealed will of God and not to speculate on what His hidden will for us might be. While we should seek to be “led by the Holy Spirit,” we must never forget that the Holy Spirit is primarily leading us to righteousness and to being conformed into the image of Christ so that our lives will glorify God. God calls us to live our lives by every word that proceeds from His mouth.
Living according to His revealed will should be the chief aim or purpose of our lives. Romans 12:1-2 summarizes this truth, as we are called to present our “bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” To know the will of God, we should immerse ourselves in the written Word of God, saturating our minds with it, and praying that the Holy Spirit will transform us through the renewing of our minds, so that the result is what is good, acceptable and perfect—the will of God.
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