Chapter 1: The Will of God

In the preceding paragraph we touched upon the distinction between the will of God’s counsel, or the will of His decree, and the will of His command, or His ethical will. The same distinction is often expressed by the terms “secret and revealed will of God.” God’s decrees are called the secret will, while the will of God’s command is designated as His revealed will: These terms, however, are not quite correct. And they are often the occasion of a serious misunderstanding. On the supposition that God’s counsel is secret, the contention is often based that we are not at all concerned with it: the secret things are for the Lord our God, the revealed things are for us and our children. We know nothing about God’s eternal counsel, and therefore we do well if we do not curiously inquire into its hidden depths. And surely, they are to be condemned as erring dangerously, who place the truth of God’s eternal purpose in the foreground as a basis of doctrine, so they say. Clearly, however, this is not correct. It is undoubtedly true that there are secret things, which we do not know and cannot know, and certainly cannot fathom. We do not know the day of our death. Nor do we know the way which we must still travel before that day arrives. No one can possibly predict how long a certain war will last, nor what will be the outcome of such a war, or what is the purpose it must serve in God’s plan. We know not what tomorrow will bring; and every day is sufficient unto the evil thereof. And we can know nothing of the will of God’s counsel, except what is revealed of it in the Scriptures. But this does not mean that we may simply dismiss the truth of God’s eternal purpose from our mind, and ignore it in our preaching and instruction. God revealed His counsel to us: The fact of the eternal good pleasure of God, as the sovereign and unchangeable purpose according to which He works all things in time, is certainly not hid, but clearly revealed. And it occupies an important and basic place in Scripture. And the general lines of that eternal counsel are clearly drawn in Scripture. God wants His people to know His counsel with respect to salvation and with regard to all things, in order that they may speak of it and be witnesses of His wisdom and power and absolute sovereignty. And therefore, we prefer to speak of God’s will of His decree and the will of His command. God’s decrees are His eternal and sovereign thoughts and determinations concerning us and concerning all things. It is the will which He Himself executes and realizes in the history of the world. His will of His command, however, declares what His moral creatures must be and will and do. It pleased God to create beings that have a will of their own, rational and moral creatures. They are creatures that are capable of knowing “what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God,” Rom. 12:2, and that in all their acts consciously function in relation to that will. And the will of God’s command reveals to these moral creatures, men and angels, what and how they shall think and will and desire and act so as to be in harmony with His own righteousness and the objects of His favor and delight. 

That this is based upon Scripture it is hardly necessary to point out. On this will of God is based the doctrine of election and reprobation, which so many in our day reject. It is the will of God’s decree which is revealed inRom. 9:18: “Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth.” The same, as regards the elect, is expressed in Rom. 8:29, 30: “For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover, whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified.” The same is expressed in Ephesians 1:9, 10: “Having made known unto us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which he hath purposed in himself: That in the dispensation of the fullness of times he might gathers together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth.” And in the same epistle, Eph. 1:5, we read: “Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself according to the good pleasure of his will.” And again in vs. 11 of the same chapter: “In whom also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will.” The same will of God is expressed in John 6:39, 40: “And this is the Father’s will which hath sent me, that of all which he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day. And this is the will of him that sent me, that everyone which seeth the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day.” To the same will, undoubtedly, Matt. 18:14refers: “Even so it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish.” That also the wicked acts of men are determined by the counsel of God from all eternity, and sovereignly, is plainly expressed in Acts 2:23: “Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain.” When the apostles Peter and John, after being released by the Jewish Council, return to the company of the church and report to them all their experience, the company of the people of God that were assembled “lifted up their voice to God with one accord, and said, Lord, thou art God, which hast made heaven and earth, and the sea, and all that in them is: Who by the mouth of thy servant David hast said, Why did the heathen rage, and the people imagine vain things ? The kings of the earth stood up, and the rulers were gathered together against the Lord, and against his Christ. For of a truth against thy holy child Jesus, whom thou hast anointed, both Herod, and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles, and the people of Israel, were gathered together, For to do whatsoever thy hand and thy counsel determined before to be done.” Acts 4:24, ff. All these passages of Holy Writ, and numerous others, refer to the sovereign counsel of God, to His will as He determined it in all eternity and executes it sovereignly in time. And it is evident from these passages that the sovereign counsel of God concerns both good and evil, the wicked and the righteous alike, the elect and reprobate. 

Very often however, the Scriptures speak of the will of God for His moral creatures, especially man. It is the will of God joy man, the will which not God performs, but which man himself is called to execute. It is the moral, ethical will of God’s command. Of this we read in Matt. 7:21: “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.” Significant because of the context is Matt. 12:50. As the Lord was teaching in a certain house, His mother and His brethren stood outside. They evidently understood that by His teaching He provoked the hatred, of the leaders of the people, and were afraid of the consequences. Hence, they wanted to take Him away from there, out of the reach of His enemies. It is then, and from that point of view, that the Lord repudiated His natural relationships and said: “For whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother.” It was Jesus’ meat to do the will of Him that sent Him, and to finish His work. John 4:34. For He came not to do His own will, but the will of Him that sent Him. John 6:3S. Spiritual knowledge of the truth and of the doctrine of our Lord Jesus Christ is inseparably connected with the desire to do the will of God. John 7:17. God does not hear sinners, but those that worship Him and do His will. John 9:31. The carnal Jews knew the will of God from the law, but they did not fulfill it. Rom. 2:18. The will of God is good and acceptable and perfect, and believers shall prove and taste the goodness of that will if they walk in the way of sanctification, and be not conformed to this world, but transformed by the renewing of their mind. Rom. 12:2. Believers are called to understand what the will of the Lord is. Eph. 5:17. Servants must be obedient to their masters, as servants of Christ, not with eye-service as men pleasers, but doing the will of God from the heart. Eph. 6:6. Believers have need of patience in the midst of the world, in order that after they have done the will of God, they might receive the promise. Heb. 10:36. They must stand in the midst of the world as being truly free, and as the servants of God, doing His will. For it is the will of God that with well-doing they may put to shame the ignorance of foolish men. The believer that has suffered in the flesh therein has a proof that he has ceased from sin, in order that he should no longer live in the flesh to the lusts of men, but to the will of God. I Peter 4:1, 2. And, to quote no more: “The world passeth away and the lust thereof, but He that doeth the will of God abideth forever.” It is evident, therefore, that not only the will of God’s command, but also the will of His counsel is clearly revealed to us in holy writ. And whether or not we shall be able fully to understand the relation between those to wills, it is our calling to maintain both on the basis of Holy Writ. 

Chapter 2: Prayer for Obedience and Submission 

The question now arises: to what does the third petition refer? In it we are enjoined to pray, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” 

Does this petition refer to the will of God’s decree, or to the will of His command, or, perhaps to both? Do we pray here that God’s counsel may be realized, or that we may obey the will of His command? Or is it impossible to separate the two, and are both implied in this prayer? It is rather usual to explain that in this petition of the Lord’s Prayer the reference is exclusively to the will of God’s command, so that the meaning is: “Give us grace, so that we may always do Thy will and keep Thy good commandments.” This is also evidently the emphasis of the Heidelberg Catechism in its exposition of this prayer. It explains: “. . . grant that we and all men may renounce our own will, and without murmuring over thy will, which is only good; that so every one may attend to, and perform the duties of his station and calling, as willingly and faithfully as the angels do in heaven.” And thus is the common explanation that this petition refers only to the will of God’s command. God’s counsel He Himself performs; we do not. With it, it is claimed, we are really not concerned. God performs the will of His decree Himself, and that too, perfectly: His counsel shall stand, and He will do all His good pleasure. There is therefore no sense in praying that His will of decree may be done. Besides, the Lord-adds to this petition: “on earth as it is in heaven,” meaning evidently that as in heaven His will is perfectly obeyed, so it may also be done on earth. And therefore, it must be evident that this prayer has reference only to the will of God’s command, and that the will of His counsel is not included in the scope of this petition.

There is truth in this contention. The main thought of this prayer is indeed that God’s will may be perfectly obeyed. Only, it should be clear that in our actual life we can never separate the will of God’s command from that of His decree, and that, while obeying His will and keeping His precepts, we are constantly in. contact with the execution of the will of His decree. In other words, if we obey the Lord our God and walk before Him according to His good commandments, we must constantly learn to will His will of decree as it is realized in our life. The will of God’s decree so determines our whole life that we are not only called to will it, but also to walk accordingly. Suppose that God sends the cold hand of death into our home to snatch away a dear child. In doing so He executes His own eternal purpose. That child is torn away from our heart according to the will of God’s decree. Of course, with the execution of this will of God’s decree as such and concerning us we have nothing to do. In fact, for some time we do everything in our power to prevent the death of the child. We call the doctor, and give the child medicine. If necessary, we submit the child to an operation. And such, of course, is our calling. But if it is the will of God’s decree that the child shall die, our own efforts avail nothing. God takes the child, and our will has nothing to do with it. And yet, in another sense it has a good deal to do with this revelation of the purpose of God to us in the death of our dear one. We certainly must walk in the way of the revelation of this will of God to us, and we must certainly learn to will the will of God in the death of the child. For there is in connection with this revelation of the will of God’s decree a very special way in which we must walk, a very special calling which we must fulfill. We must surrender the child to the care of the undertaker. We must visit the funeral parlors. We must ultimately walk the way to the grave. Moreover, in all this we have the calling to submit ourselves to the will of God, yea, to blend our will with His, and to give Him glory and praise even in the midst of our own sorrow according to the flesh, and to confess that He does all things well. In this particular case the third petition of the Lord’s prayer would mean: “Lord, give us grace that in this particular way in which Thou leadest us we may walk in complete surrender to Thy holy will, so that we may be able to say from the heart, ‘The Lord hath given, the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’ Job 1:21

Thus it is with our whole life. Always we must find and obey our calling in the particular place in which God stations us, and in the way in which He leads us. The clearest and most profound illustration of this truth we have in the prayer of our Lord in Gethsemane, where He too sent this petition to the Father: “Thy will be done.” He prayed then in the agony of His soul. The dark shadow of the cross stole over His soul. He was, as He told His disciples, exceeding sorrowful, even unto death. He clearly anticipated the full horror of the way that stretched out before Him that night. Already He tasted the bitterness of the cup He had to drink in obedience to the Father, as the perfect Servant of Jehovah. He was sore amazed. So perplexed was He, that even in that extreme hour He conceived of the possibility of some other way of obedience than the one into which He was about to descend. And He poured out His soul before the face of the Father in that darkest of nights and prayed: “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me nevertheless, not my will, but thy will be done.” To be sure, the Lord Jesus here prayed that He might be obedient to the will of the Father even unto the very end. He would drink the cup His Father gave Him to drink. In, that sense His prayer referred to the will of God’s command, the command that He should lay down His life for His sheep, which the Father had given Him. Yet, how closely this obedience of the Savior was connected with the will of God’s eternal counsel concerning Him. God had decreed the way of the cross, and all its horrors and sufferings, for His only begotten Son. And it was in the way of that counsel that the Lord had to become obedient even unto the end. 

It is no different with us. To be sure, the prayer, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” emphasizes that we may do His will perfectly, as it is obeyed by the inhabitants of heaven, the perfected saints and the holy angels, with Christ in their midst and at their head. It would allow all our earthly life, and consecrate it to the living God. It teaches us to consider the whole of our earthly life, in all its different phases and departments, as a calling, an office, a mandate, and ourselves as officebearers, servants of the living God. For the will of God concerns our whole life and walk, and every department of that life. And in all our life we, who have been called out of darkness into His marvelous light, are His servants, called to do His will. We cannot divide life into two main departments, or spheres, so that we serve God in the one, but consider that the other lies wholly outside of the sphere of His will. All our life belongs to Him, and to Him it is to be consecrated. Always and everywhere we are in His service. Our whole existence is an office. With the life of our body and of our soul, with the life of our mind and of our desires, and in all the various relationships of life, in the family, in society, in shop or office, in church and state, we are called to serve Him. And always we must ask for that “good, and acceptable, and perfect will of God.” And thus, all of our life is hallowed by this third petition. The minister in his pulpit, the elder in the oversight of his flock, the deacon in his work of mercy, but also the teacher before his class, the policeman on his beat, the shoemaker at his bench, the mother in the daily routine of her homely tasks, the father at the head of his family, the children in relation to their parents, everyone, without exception, whatever his station in life, finds that the will of God governs his life, and must be obeyed. The prayer, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” teaches us to look upon all of life as a calling of God, in which we must glorify our Father which is in heaven. 

Yet we may not overlook that in thus seeking to know and to do the will of our Father in heaven we are, as it were, encompassed on every side by the sovereign will of God’s decree. For our stations and calling, our way and our circumstances, are not all alike. They vary greatly. The one is rich, and the other poor. The one is of high, the other of low estate. The one has received many talents and gifts from God, the other few; and there are those that receive but the one talent. And accordingly, our positions in life differ. This is true even in the angel world. Gabriel stands before God; Michael is a prince among the angels; and there are powers and principalities in heaven. And no less is this true on earth. Some hold an exalted place. Others perform the lower tasks of life. There are kings and rulers; and there are those that dig sewers and clean streets. In the church, some are ministers of the gospel; others are elders or deacons; still others are Sunday School teachers or leaders in the various societies; while the great majority functions simply in the office of believers. Now, whence comes this difference in gifts and talents, in station and calling? It comes from God, Who governs our entire life according to His eternal purpose and good pleasure. And in that particular station and calling which He assigns to us, we must be servants, and must walk in obedience to His good and perfect will. And so we see that in our entire life there is indeed a close relation between the will of God’s counsel and the will of His command, and that somehow they are both included in the prayer, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” 

This, it seems to me, is also implied in the very form of this petition. In it we do not simply pray that we may perform the will of God’s command. The form is entirely general, and even in the passive: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” 

For what, then, do we pray in this third petition? 

First of all, we are taught here to beseech our Father in heaven for grace that we may always accept our position in life as our particular assignment from Him, and our way as the way which He ordained for us, in order that in that position and in that way we may function as His servants and do His will. O, indeed, we need grace, we need much grace, grace every day, to assume that attitude. How inclined we are to divide life into separate spheres, a sphere of our religious life, in which we serve the Lord and clearly think to discern a calling and office, and another sphere of our everyday life, which we may probably mix with some religious exercises, but in which we fail to consider ourselves servants of God, that must ask and do His will! In that case we look upon our daily work, whatever that may be, as something rather profane. We conduct our business in order to make a living, or to accumulate wealth. We look upon our work in the factory as a necessary evil. The housewife goes through the daily routine of her labors as a kind of drudgery. The teacher is glad when the toil of the day is over. We distinguish between a calling and a job. A minister of the gospel has a calling, but outside of that, most people simply have a job. That to work in the shop, or to dig sewers, to make tools, or to build a house, to bear children and to bring them up, to darn stockings and to wash dishes, whatever may be the work that is awaiting us every day, also belongs to our calling from the Lord, and also is an office,—how many of us think of it and live accordingly? Yes, so it is. The Christian has been called out of darkness into God’s marvelous light, and liberated from the slavery of sin, in order that with his entire life, in all its relationships, he might be taken into the service of his God. Hence, wherever he is stationed and in whatever way God leads him, there he must see his calling. And well may he daily ask for grace that he may accept his posi6on without murmuring, and look upon it as a calling from his Father in heaven. “Thy will be done. Grant, O Father in heaven, that I may always and everywhere live as before Thy face, in Thy presence, and in the consciousness of my calling to be Thy servant.” 

Then, in the second place, in this petition we ask for grace that in that particular calling, which is ours we may always be ready to do the Lord’s will, even though this should mean that we have to renounce our own will. This is expressed in the exposition of the Heidelberg Catechism: “. . . . grant that we and all men may renounce our own will, and without murmuring obey thy will, which is only good.” Indeed, to do the will of God in our whole life means that we shall be diligent in our work, that we shall be honest in our business dealings, that we shall be kind and just “to those that are in our employ, provide good working conditions for them, and pay them a fair wage, that we shall be in subjection to those that have the rule over us, obeying them not as men pleasers with eye-service, but as serving the Lord Christ. In short, it implies that we shall consecrate ourselves, with all our powers and possessions and means, unto the God of our salvation, and that we shall walk as children of light in the midst of a world that lieth in darkness, confessing the name of the Lord and glorifying our Father which is in heaven. It means that we fight sin within us, forsake the world, and walk in all good works, day by day and everywhere. For the prayer is that we here on earth may perform the will of God as faithfully and perfectly as the inhabitants of heaven do His will. The Lord directs our eyes to heaven here once more. There is Christ, the perfect servant of the Lord. There are the saints that have gone before, and that are delivered from the last vestige of sin and corruption. There are the holy angels, that hearken to the Word of God’s mouth, and are ever ready to execute His will. That so perfectly and so cheerfully and gladly we may do the will of our Father in heaven is the request of this third petition of the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father in heaven, teach me Thy will to know, and from the heart Thy will to do.” We understand, of course, that this third petition presupposes that in our hearts we have the longing to do the will of God perfectly. We certainly cannot love sin and deliberately walk in it; we cannot even cherish any particular sin and hide it in our bosom, and utter this petition.