The other day I received this question via e-mail from a former theology student:
… Anyway, a main reason for writing is I left my class notes in storage and I remember Bill that you explained God's decreed will and His permissive will. Could you give me the explanation again. I am in a small Bible study and the ladies seem to think that our life is just about our choices and I was adamant that God's will would be done in our life, but at the time I couldn't recall the term His permissive will. Alice
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The distinction that I made in class was between God's DECREED WILL and God's PRECEPTIVE WILL. This is not a distinction made in the Bible, but one made by theologians, and which I believe is a necessary distinction.
GOD'S DECREED (or Decretive) WILL is defined as that which God causes necessarily to come to pass. If we believe that God is absolutely sovereign, then nothing happens outside of His Decreed Will. “He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will. … He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him. … having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will” (Ephesians 1:5, 9, 11); “So then it does not depend on the one who wills or the one who runs, but on God who has mercy. … You may say to me then, ‘Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?’” (Romans 9:16, 19).
GOD'S PRECEPTIVE WILL (or Will of Desire, or Revealed Will), however, is another matter. We may define this as what God expresses as His desire. We find passages that express God's desires for our behavior, but which may not necessarily be carried out. “For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality” (1 Thessalonians, 4:3); “in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (5:18); “The Lord … is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). These are only a few.
So it is possible to step outside of God's Preceptive Will, though we can never step outside of His Decreed Will. An example of this is the crucifixion of Christ: “this Man, delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, YOU nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death” (Acts 2:23). “For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur” (4:27, 28). The crucifixion of Christ was a direct violation of God's Preceptive Will -- His command "You shall not murder" (Exodus 20:13). Yet it was at the same time an act willed by God.
Some have used the expression "God's Permissive Will" to explain phenomena like these. It is said that while we may violate God's commands (His Preceptive Will), it is only as God permits us to do so.
Others have used the expression "God's Perfect Will" to describe what happens when His Decreed and His Permissive Will coincide. When I obey God, I am doing His "Perfect Will." When Paul in Romans 12:2 says, "that you may prove what the will of God is," he is not talking about finding God's Decreed Will, what He has planned for our future, but of testing and demonstrating the truth of God's Preceptive Will as revealed in the Scripture.
As for what your lady friends are saying about choices, I believe they are correct as far as it goes. We are obligated to make choices -- to choose to obey the will of God as He has revealed it to us in His Word. Notice in the Acts passages, Peter was holding the Jewish leaders responsible for their actions (their "choices"), even though they were carrying out God's Decreed Will.
I know this is difficult for many of us. We want it to be an “either/or” but as I read these passages I see a “both/and.” We make our decisions/choices as we see fit, whether they are good or evil, yet we find in doing so we are carrying out God’s plan.
And we need to remember that God is carrying out His purpose in our lives, whether or not we make the correct choices. “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). Notice that His purpose for us is that we will be "conformed to the image of His Son” (8:29).