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Word Study: The Will of God

Purpose 

This article is a survey of the uses of the Greek word thelema (noun: will, desire) in the New Testament. I will particularly focus on how thelema is used concerning God’s will. The Bible uses multiple words to express God’s plan or desires, so this words study is far from exhaustive. Still, I hope that it will give the reader insight into God’s will.

Will as Want, Plan, and Assignment

For a long time, when people would ask me about how to find the “will of God” I would begin by making a distinction between the moral will of God and the sovereign will of God. God has revealed his moral will – what he wants of human beings – through Scripture. When God tells us to know or do his will, he’s talking about his moral will. 

God’s sovereign will is what he accomplishes, or will accomplish, in history. We can only know his sovereign will after the fact, except through special revelation, as, for instance, through a prophet. God doesn’t ask us to know the details of his sovereign will, though in hindsight we could see how God wove together different events or circumstances to accomplish that will. When I started my survey of God’s word, I began by categorizing the instances of the word through this grid. Was the word about his moral will, his sovereign will, or was the reference ambiguous? However, while is there is still theological and pastoral value to this categorization, it didn’t prove to be a very helpful way of looking at the meaning of the Greek word.

Based on my survey of the uses of thelema in the New Testament, I believe that it carries with it the sense of wantplan, and assignment. These three senses are interrelated, but often one sense comes to the forefront in the verse. We can see how the senses are related through the lens of the father/son relationship. Jesus tells a parable of two sons in Matthew 21:28-32. A father tells his two sons to go work in the vineyard, one says he will go, but does not, the other says he won’t, but then goes and works. Jesus asks, “Which of the two did what his father wanted [thelema]?” (Matthew 21:31)

Here, the senses of want and assignment are forefront. The father wanted his sons to work in the field and so he gave them an assignment. We know which one did what the father wanted based on who did the assignment. The sense of plan fades into the background, though we might infer that the father wanted the sons to work in the field because he had a plan to harvest the crop by such and such a date and so he gave an assignment to his sons to work.

Will as Want

The sense of will as want (or desire) is forefront when the word is used in regards to human desire. For example: 

  • Pilate surrendered Jesus to the crowd’s will (Lk 23:15). He let them do what they wanted to with him. The sense of plan also comes forward since they planned to have Jesus killed. 
  • Paul says that an unmarried man who has control over his own will (desires), can stay unmarried (1 Cor 7:37).
  • Paul says that we all start “gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts” (Eph 2:3).

What does the text say about what God wants?

Salvific Plan 

Before moving on, I need to introduce the idea of God’s salvific plan, which I think you will see comes forward clearly in the text. God wants to rescue humanity, so he has a plan, and he carries out that plan through human agents, to whom he gives assignments. Jesus stands as the most frequent human agent, and he often speaks in terms of doing the Father’s will, which we can see as carrying out the Father’s desiresplan, and assignment. Jesus wants what the Father wants, purposes what the Father purposes, and does what the Father asks.

What, then, does the Father want? 

  • “Your Father in heaven is not willing that any one of these little ones should perish.” (Matthew 18:14)
  • “This is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but shall raise them up at the last day” (John 6:39)
  • “For the Father’s will is that everyone who looks at the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life” (John 6:40)
  • “God… wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). I am cheating a little by including this reference since the word here is the verb thelo (to will/want) not the noun thelema, a much more common word. However, the sense fits so well, and the words have the same root, that I have decided to include it.

In the passages above, the sense of want comes out most strongly. God does not want anyone to perish. He wants all who believe to have eternal life. He wants all people to be saved. But, the sense of a plan also comes through. For, we could also say, “the Father’s plan is that everyone who looks at the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life.”

Plan

The Father carries out his salvific plan through Jesus. In the Garden, Jesus prays “if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done” (Matthew 26:42, see also Luke 22:42). This aligns with Jesus’s stated mission, to do the will of Him who sent him (John 4:34, 5:30, 6:38). In these passages, the sense of assignment also comes through, but they fit within a larger plan. In Gethsemane, Jesus sets aside his desire (will) to carry out the assignment (will) given, following the Father’s plan (will).

Here’s how Paul carries out this idea: 

  • “Jesus Christ… gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God” (Galatians 1:4)
  • God “predestined us for adoption to sonship, in accordance with his pleasure and will” (Ephesians 1:5)
  • God “made known to us the mystery of his will” (Ephesians 1:9)
  • “In [Jesus] we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will” (Ephesians 1:11)

We need to parse out the three usages in Ephesians. What is the “mystery of His will”? The broader context of Ephesians has to do with the incorporation of the Gentiles into Christ. “This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 3:6). I propose that God’s will, either as a plan or as want in Ephesians, is centered on the union of Jew and Gentile in Christ, which is itself part of a broader cosmic plan to “bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (Ephesians 1:10).

Finally, let’s look at Hebrews 10:5-10. The writer argues that when Christ came into the world he said “Here I am—it is written about me in the scroll—I have come to do your will [desire, plan, assignment], my God” (10:7, 9). Instead of offering sacrifices, per the law, he offered his own body, following God’s will. “By that will [desire/plan], we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:10). 

To summarize the points thus far: God wants all people to be saved, a plan which involves the incorporation of the Gentiles. This plan requires Jesus to carry out the assignment, primarily his sacrifice (Heb 10:10), through which he can reconcile all people to God (Ephesians 2:16). 

Assignment

The above passages have focused on either God accomplishing his own will (wants, plan) or Jesus accomplishing the Father’s will (wants, plan, assignment), but many passages talk about humans doing or knowing God’s will. In these passages, will as want and assignment come to the fore. 

  • Paul is an apostle by the will of God (1 Cor 1:1, 2 Cor 1:1, Eph 1:1, 2 Tim 1:1). The strongest sense here is assignment, though that could be an assignment under God’s plan to reconcile the Gentiles to God through Christ. In Acts, Ananias says to Paul, “The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and to hear words from his mouth” (Acts 22:14). He links this to his role as a witness (22:15)
  • In Acts, Paul says that David is a man after God’s own heart because he does everything God wants him to do (Acts 13:22). David does what God wants. Like the father/son parable we started with, God’s wants, at least in part, are expressed as assignments (i.e., the law, or direct instruction)
  • Jesus encourages his followers to be those who do the will of his Father (Matthew 7:21, 12:50, Mark 3:35, Luke 12:47, John 7:17) and those words are often tied directly to following some moral command: “whoever hears these words of mine and puts them into practice” (Matthew 7:24)
  • The blind man who Jesus heals defends Jesus by saying that God “listens to the godly person who does his will” (John 9:31)
  • Paul frequently links knowing and doing God’s will to ethical instructions: 
    • The Jews know God’s will because they have been instructed in the law (Romans 2:18)
    • Testing and approving God’s will is linked to moral instruction for life in the community (Romans 12:2ff)
    • Knowing God’s will parallels with living with wisdom (Ephesians 5:15, 17)
    • Servants obey their masters, for in doing so they are doing the will of God (Ephesians 6:6-7)
    • Being filled with the knowledge of God’s will enables us to please the Lord, bearing fruit in every good work (Colossians 1:9-10)
    • Standing firm in the will of God links with being mature and fully assured (Colossians 4:12)
    • It is God’s will that we will be sanctified by avoiding sexual immorality (1 Thessalonians 4:3)
    • God’s will is for us to give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18)
  • The two instances in Hebrews where we are called to do God’s will link with persevering in suffering (Hebrews 10:37) and being equipped with everything good (Hebrews 13:21)
  • In 1 Peter we do God’s will by doing good to silence foolish slander (2:15) and resisting the urge to live for evil desires (4:2). Peter also says that “those who suffering according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful creator” (4:19). This doesn’t appear to be a moral injunction to suffer. But, in the example of Christ, suffering may be part of the Christian’s assignment.
  • 1 John says that “those who do the will of God live forever” (2:17) and this appears to be linked to keeping his commands (2:3). John also says that “if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. One of those prayers is that God would give life to a brother or sister who sins (5:14, 16).

In all these cases, God’s will, in terms of what he wants, ties closely together with his will, in terms of what he assigns for us to do. Again, this makes complete sense when understood through the father/son parable with which we began. In some ways, there is a circular relationship between knowing what God wants in a general sense, and knowing his particular commands. What God wants leads directly to his commands, but we also learn about the character of God – about what he loves – through his commands. The law should instruct us both in what God requires of us and the nature of the God who makes such requirements. What is absent is the idea that God wants us to know detailed particulars of what he is going to do, or what we should eat for breakfast, or what our major should be in college.

If we want to link these assignments to God’s plan then it would be permissible to do so in a general sense. God plans to bring salvation to the end of the earth, bringing together one people reconciled to God. Our assignments (living wisely, being sanctified, doing good) all fit into that plan. We must recognize though, that outside of references to Jesus and Paul, that is mostly a theological step, not necessarily a linguistic one.

Summary

My argument is that God’s will is best understood in terms of what God wantsplans, and assigns. God wants to rescue humanity. To do so, he carries out his plan by sending Jesus. Jesus carries out this assignment through his obedient life and perfect death. We can also do God’s will by understanding what he wants us to do: our assignments. Those assignments can be understood through Scripture, in light of God’s broader mission to bring all things to unity in Christ.

Appendix: Other uses

My overview has not listed every use of thelema in the New Testament so, to be thorough, I will list the remainder here.

  • Matthew 6:10: In the Lord’s prayer we pray “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” In this case, will is best understood in terms of what God wants. God’s desires are already fully realized in heaven, but we want to see those desires also fully realized on earth. Those fully realized desires are expressed in terms of the kingdom of God.
  • John 1:13: John says that Jesus makes those who receive him children of God, children not born of the will of the flesh or the will of the husband, “but born of God.” The structure of the verse suggests that being born of God means being born by God’s will. God’s desire is the sense most likely in view here as it parallels John 6:38-40.
  • There are three instances where God’s plan, in a non-moral, non-assignment sense, appear to be in view:
    • Acts 22:14 “When he would not be dissuaded, we gave up and said, ‘The Lord’s will be done.'”
    • Romans 1:10 “I pray that… by God’s will the way may be opened for me to come.”
    • Romans 15:32 “so that I may come to you with all joy, by God’s will.”
    • All of these involve some uncertain future: What will happen to Paul in Jerusalem? Will Paul be able to visit Rome? The people don’t know what will happen, but trust that God will carry out his plan.
  • 1 Corinthians 16:12 “Apollos… was quite unwilling to go”. This is a case where human desire is in view.
  • 2 Corinthians 8:5 “They gave themselves first of all to the Lord, and then by the will of God also to us.” Paul is extolling the Thessalonians for giving so generously to those in need in Jerusalem. The will here appears to be what God wants since it lines up with God’s desire for generosity.
  • 2 Timothy 2:26 “…escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.” This is a rare case where will is not used about God or humans, but the devil. “To do his will” seems to mean “to do what he wants,” or maybe “to do his assignment.”
  • 2 Peter 1:21 “prophecy never had its origin in human will.” I take this to mean that true prophecy doesn’t occur just because a prophet wants it to occur. God, through the Spirit, initiates the prophetic word, according to his desire, plan, and assignment (see Jeremiah 1:4-5)
  • Revelation 4:11 “for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.” Again, I think what God wants is in view. He created and sustains all things because doing so aligns with what God loves and values

An Exercise in Hope

Introduction

Esau McCaulley grew up immersed in the gospel, church, and Scripture. But when he attended a university that was 98% white to double major in history and religion he found himself thrust into the middle of a “hundred years’ war between white evangelicals and white mainline protestants.” (9) 

McCaulley was frustrated to discover that this debate had been carried out without the witness of his tradition in the Black church. He began to look to Black theologians in the academy but discovered that they did not share the high regard for Scripture that he had experienced in his home and church. His book, Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope captures his attempt to identify a “fourth thing” between white progressives, white evangelicals, and African American progressives: the Black ecclesial tradition. 

A fourth thing 

Before we describe “African American Biblical interpretation” and how it is “an exercise in hope,” let’s define McCaulley’s conversation partners.

White progressives: McCaulley’s white progressive professors saw biblical fundamentalism as a problem. They saw the Bible as a tool in the hands of white slave-holders to oppress Black people. They had a point. But, McCaulley saw that the solution these progressive pastors offered robbed their Black students of a crucial spiritual resource. 

How did the white progressive story do this?

“In this story, Black students do not really enter in as actors. We are acted upon, our suffering functioning as examples of the evils of white supremacy… But there is a second testimony possibly more important than the first. That is the testimony of Black Christians who saw in the same Bible the basis of their dignity and hope in a culture that often denied them of both. In my professor’s attempt to take the Bible away from the fundamentalists, he also robbed the Black Christians of the rock on which they stood.” (8, emphasis added)

McCaulley felt alienated from the white progressives that surrounded him. They undermined Scripture by saying that it justified slavery. McCaulley, drawing on his upbringing, saw in Scripture a source of dignity and hope for Black Christians, a tool of liberation, not oppression.

White evangelicals: McCaulley next turned to evangelicalism, again in a primarily white environment. Evangelicalism, as defined by Historian David Bebbington, has four pillars: Conversionism (the need for new birth), Activism, Biblicism (high regard for Scripture), and Crucicentrism (stress on Jesus’ sacrificial death). On these beliefs, Black Christians and white evangelicals have much in common.  

However, while McCaulley felt comfortable with evangelical theology, he felt alienated from evangelicalism as a movement. He observed that along with the four pillars of evangelicalism listed above, white evangelicals held unspoken fifth and sixth pillars. “These are a general agreement on a certain reading of American history that downplayed injustice and a gentleman’s agreement to remain largely silent on current issues of racism and systemic injustice.” (11) 

McCaulley appreciated evangelicalism’s high view of Scripture but took issue with the way that the Bible functioned. It “had been reduced to the arena on which we fought an endless war about the finer points of Paul’s doctrine of salvation” but had next to nothing to say about the suffering and struggles of his community.  

Black progressives: Discontent with white progressives and white evangelicals, both of which mostly ignored Black voices, McCaulley turned to Black Christian voices within the academy. Here, however, he learned that there was a disconnect between what happened in the Academy and what happened in the Church. Because only white progressives had invested in Black pastors, the African American academy had become theologically progressive. Meanwhile, the African American Church felt stuck in the middle. COGIC pastors he talked to agreed with the theological analysis of evangelicals and the social practice of progressives but lacked an academic source for both.  

The Black Ecclesial tradition:

McCaulley calls this fourth way the Black ecclesial tradition. This “ecclesial” tradition is embodied within the Black church. It carries with it both a high view of Scripture and a deep concern for justice and liberation.

A socially located reading of the Bible

We must pause for a moment and address a possible question in the reader’s mind: Why should we seek a uniquely African American interpretation of Scripture? Doesn’t Scripture have but a single interpretation, regardless of one’s culture? McCaulley frames the question like this: “The social location of enslaved persons caused them to read the Bible differently. This unabashedly located reading marked African American interpretation since. Did this social location mean Blacks rejected biblical texts that did not match their understanding of God? Did Blacks create a canon within in a canon?”

His answer to the latter question is, in part, “yes”, but in this, they were not alone. Slave-holders had the letters of Paul as their canon within a canon, specifically, the passages which they believed justified slavery. Slaves, on the other hand, emphasized the exodus, the suffering of Christ, and the liberating character of God. Both read the Bible from a social location and, in this instance, the slave reading of Scripture proved correct. 

While Scripture has a single, objective meaning located in the authors’ (human and divine) intent, no one comes to the text from a purely objective perspective. We all bring with us our cultures and experiences. I saw a book in our church library called A Shepherd’s Look at Psalm 23. The title acknowledges that we can expect the author’s shepherding experience to yield insights not readily available to someone who has lived his entire life in an urban jungle. Likewise, we should expect that the African American experience will provide a certain perspective on Scripture not easily available to a member of the majority culture. 

McCaulley does not say that African American interpretation trumps other interpretations, but that we should enter into dialogue with it. Biblical interpretation is an exercise in dialogue. The interpreter brings her questions to Scripture and, at the same time, Scripture asks questions of the interpreter. Entering into a diverse community broadens the dialogue between people of different backgrounds and social locations. Sometimes these social locations leave us with blind spots and reading in dialogue helps us overcome our otherwise anemic interpretations. 

A Hermeneutic of trust

If McCaulley’s evangelical flank challenges the notion of a uniquely African American interpretation then he faces another challenge from the progressive flank: distrust of Scripture. Progressives, and what he calls “Black nihilists,” question whether Scripture can yield any fruit at all in the question for justice. Why would African Americans adopt the very religion and sacred Text used to oppress them? 

In the face of this challenge, McCaulley argues that we should “adopt a hermeneutic of trust in which we are patient with the text in the belief that when interpreted properly it will yield a blessing and not a curse.” (21) He does not call us to a naivete that buries hard questions glosses over difficult passages, but to enter into a careful, canonical, and theological reading of Scripture.

An exercise in hope 

Reading Scripture in this way produces hope. “The point of the very process of engaging these Scriptures and expecting an answer is an exercise in hope.” (166) I heard McCaulley say in an interview that, while the title went through several iterations, he always included the word hope. Hope saturates Reading While Black. McCaulley finds hope in God who brings physical and spiritual liberation. He finds hope in Jesus, who entered into our suffering and forgives our sins. He finds hope in the resurrection and the coming kingdom of God. 

McCaulley has much to teach us in the American church, no matter our social location. How do we read Scripture in a diverse community? What can white Christians learn specifically from the Black ecclesial tradition? How do we approach the Bible from the position of trust? How do we face the brokenness of our world with hope?