John Calvin, by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/1498–1543)

Those who hold to the Calvinistic concept of predestination believe that God predetermined everything that would happen before the foundation of the world in an eternal and unconditional decree. The Westminster Confession of Faith outlines this decree and its ramifications in this way:

I. God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass…

III. By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life; and others foreordained to everlasting death.

In this view, God selected certain sinners to be regenerated and implanted with saving faith, but did not select other sinners for regeneration and faith.

Such a teaching seems to run counter to passages like 1 Timothy 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9, which say that God desires all men to be saved and is not willing that any should perish. In Calvinistic theology, one way this apparent contradiction is handled is by positing two wills of God. There are different terms used to describe these two wills, but the essential distinction is between God’s revealed will and His secret will. According to some Calvinists, in His revealed will, God declares His desire to save all men. But in His unrevealed or secret will, He desires that only some individuals will be given faith and saved.

One proponent of this explanation is John Piper:

Affirming the will of God to save all, while also affirming the unconditional election of some, implies that there are at least “two wills” in God, or two ways of willing. It implies that God decrees one state of affairs while also willing and teaching that a different state of affairs should come to pass. This distinction in the way God wills has been expressed in various ways throughout the centuries. It is not a new contrivance. For example, theologians have spoken of sovereign will and moral will, efficient will and permissive will, secret will and revealed will, will of decree and will of command, decretive will and preceptive will, voluntas signi (will of sign) and voluntas beneplaciti (will of good pleasure), etc.

Is this a legitimate argument?

Piper is correct that the phrase “the will of God” can be used in two ways. Sometimes the Bible speaks of the “will of God” in the sense of that which He desires that we do but permits us not to. Here’s an example: “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality” (1 Thessalonians 4:3). God has revealed His desire that Christians abstain from fornication. That is His desire, or His preferred will. But Christians may choose to ignore this desire and commit sin. God does not cause us to sin – we choose to sin (James 1:13). So 1 Thessalonians 4:3 is using the phrase “the will of God” in the sense of what God prefers that we do, but permits us not to do. The Bible often speaks of God’s will in this sense (Mark 3:35; Ephesians 6:6; 1 Thessalonians 5:18; Hebrews 10:36; 1 Peter 4:2; 1 John 2:17).

On the other hand, the Bible sometimes speaks of the will of God in the sense of what God desires to happen AND causes to happen. These matters do not involve human freedom or choice. The classic example of this is creation. “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created” (Revelation 4:11). God not only desired for there to be a creation, He caused it to happen. The same is true with God’s plan of redemption. God decreed that redemption would occur only through His Son (1 Peter 1:20; Ephesians 1:9).

So I have no problem speaking of God having “two wills” – or even using some of the standard theological terms:

  • God’s permissive will = God desires one thing but permits something else to happen.
  • God’s efficient will = God desires something and God causes it to happen.

So yes, in this sense God has “two wills.” But the key thing to see is that God doesn’t claim to desire one thing to happen while at the same time desiring and decreeing its exact opposite . For example, God doesn’t express a desire for Christians to live in holiness while at the same time desiring and decreeing that they live in impurity. Or, God does not express the desire that everyone be saved while at the same time desiring and decreeing that not everyone is saved.

But when Piper says that God has “two wills,” he means something much different. He means that at the same time God expresses His desire to save all men (His “revealed will”), that He does not desire to save all men (His “secret will”). On this understanding, God publicly expresses one desire, but secretly desires the exact opposite. This seems to be to be a glaring contradiction.

Many Calvinistic writers acknowledge this problem, and opt for interpretations of passages like 1 Timothy 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9 that limit the seeming universal scope of God’s saving desire by contextual considerations. While I don’t agree with those interpretations, they are certainly an improvement over the dubious view of the two wills of God argued by Piper and others.