Reflections from the Pulpit: The decretive, perceptive, and permissive will of God

Posted 3/5/21

People sometimes think, “If God is all-powerful and good, as the Bible says, then why is there evil in the world?”

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Reflections from the Pulpit: The decretive, perceptive, and permissive will of God


People sometimes think, “If God is all-powerful and good, as the Bible says, then why is there evil in the world?” This is the Problem of Evil in one sentence. Sometimes, it is framed like this: “If God is sovereign Creator, does that make Him the author of evil – since our world contains evil?”

These are serious questions, which can be addressed further, if the readers would like. For now, please consider one key element in this discussion: the great cost of creating willed beings. Have you ever stopped to consider what it means to bring willed beings into the universe? New parents gain a brief glimpse of this when it suddenly dawns on them, usually in sleepless nights, exhaustion, and great angst, that some crying of their sweet child is not the cry of need, but of will. It is a shock – a shock that some parents deny all their lives, raising adult infants who perpetrate their toxic will on the world. This is a graphic, yet limited illustration of the cost of creating willed beings.

The creation of a human child comes at great risk: the risk of creating a being that exercises its will in the shattering of human hearts. Yet what true human would say, “The creation of children is evil?” Never! The creation of children is a great good – exquisite joy and potential pain in one package. Costly, yes – but worth it, to a priceless value. Again, the illustration is limited, but insightful.

When God creates flowers, trees, animals, and earth, He creates things that are true to their non-willed intent. A flower bends to the sun, as it should; a tree drinks the rain, as it should, consuming carbon dioxide and breathing out oxygen; the animals feed and birds sing, as they should; and the earth moves, orbits, and harbors, as it should. There is great wisdom here, for willed beings to consider. This is one reason why Jesus said, “Consider the flowers, how they grow! Consider the birds, how they do not sow!” If we can see such things with our soul, we will learn much of our own order and disorder – the freedom and bondage of our will. For, when God creates humans, He creates beings that can only be what they are with the attendant ability to be what they are not. Truly, it is said, “To sin is not human; to sin is less than human.” The original instructions for fully human nature did not include sin – the original instructions did, however, come with the ability for humans to write sin into the code, defacing the Imago Dei, the Image of God. This is now our current reality: defaced holy code, writ large in billions – billions of God’s children, across the world, breaking hearts, shattering souls with their willed being and twisted identity, multiplied in generations, apart from divine intent. Selah.

Yes, God is sovereign. Yes, God is our Heavenly Father who means good for us. And yes, He will bring good from all that seems evil, painful, and chaotic. For now, though, we are just talking about the cost of creating willed beings – beings made in the Image of God who choose a replacement image. The creation is so unimaginably high that the fall is unspeakably low. “Lilies that fester smell worse than weeds,” and so it is with us – and our world.

And further, Scripture presents three layers to the will of God: Decretive, preceptive, and permissive. God’s decretive will is where He commands or decrees something to happen. For instance, the creation of the universe or the incarnation of Christ. God’s preceptive will is where He reveals His precepts, His order for human life. For instance, He wills that we should be holy, as He is holy; He wills that we should repent and believe; and He wills that we should follow His law and word. We are called to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God (Mic. 6:8). “The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart” (Ps. 19:8). And finally, God’s permissive will is where He permits things to occur that are not part of His decree, nor part of His precepts. What a sobering reality this is, especially for leaders of families, cities, states, and nations – that because we are human, permission is given to do other than the will of God, affecting all in our authority. Our minds fail here, for we are brushing up against the highest thing in creation under God: willed beings. This is where most faith struggles come in – humans affected by sin, abuse, and injustice find it hard to see beyond the unholy human to the holy divine.

The only way back to being truly human is in the redemption of God – redemption that brings us into His preceptive will. As George MacDonald says, “It may cost God a suffering that no human can ever know, simply to bring one human to the point of being willing to do God’s will.” This is the reason Jesus was born and died: The redemption of human will, and thus the redemption of the whole human. “When a man is saved from his sins, the universe flowers yet again in his redemption.”

If we would understand the goodness of God even in the darkness and evil of our fallen world, it must be through redemption: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my will” (Ez. 36:26). Let it be, Lord! Let it be. Amen.