Divine Decrees: Understanding the Distinction present in the Will of God

How does God will for things to be done?  What is meant by the “will of God?” Theologians tend to define the will of God in two specific categories: decretive and preceptive.

The decretive will of God is the eternal decree that He has purposefully set to do in history for His own good.  Here are a couple examples:

  • “Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness…” (Gen 1.26a; NKJV)
  • “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘When you go back to Egypt, see that you do all those wonders before Pharaoh which I have put in your hand. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go” (Exod 4.21; NKJV).
  • “Remember this and stand firm, recall it to mind, you transgressors, remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish my purpose, and I will do it” (Isa 46.8-10; cf. Dan 4.35).1
  • “In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will” (Eph 1.11).

The decretive will of God is God’s purposeful desires and actions taking place in history (time) as He sees fit.  What He has decreed (i.e. willed) cannot be undone…ever (cf. Isa 43.13; Prov 21.30). This will of God is irresistible, because it is in no way limited by the creature’s, desires, nature or action (activity).

This is one aspect of God’s will, here is the other.

The preceptive will of God is the standard the Lord has given for human behavior.  God is a moral being and He expects His creatures to act in a like manner (i.e. image bearing).  This will of God is specifically tied to God commandments, His Law (precepts, statutes, etc.). Here are a couple examples:

  • “And God said to Noah, ‘I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them. Behold, I will destroy them with the earth.  Make yourself an ark of gopher wood.  Make yourself an ark of gopher wood.  Make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch.  This how you are to make it…’” (Gen 6.13-15a).
  • “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you’” (Gen 12.1).
  • “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exod 20.2).2
  • “Consecrate yourselves, therefore, and be holy, for I am the Lord your God. Keep my statutes and do them; I am the Lord who sanctifies you” (Lev 20.7-8; cf. 18.4-5; 19.37)

The preceptive will of God is God’s purposeful desire for mankind’s actions in history.  The commands of God are given as a standard for the functionality of imaging (mirroring) God’s Holy heart in all of creation.  Unlike the decretive will, the preceptive will (what God has commanded men and women to model) can be resisted.  Something Stephen declares to the ruling body of religious elites in Jerusalem (i.e. Sanhedrin) in Acts 7:53, “…you who received the law as delivered by angels did not keep it” (Acts 7.53; italics added; cf. Ezek 20.18-21; Heb 2.2).

One of the things I hoped you noticed is that a couple of my examples above appear to leave open the possibility that the man commanded could rebel.   Look at Noah and Abram (Abraham).  Could Noah have refused the will of God and not built the ark?  Could Abraham refused to go to a foreign country leaving all that he knew in his former life?  Certainly, by mere appearances this seems to be the case.  Some will use a similar argument to say that Jesus could have sinned, and Judas Iscariot could have chosen not to betray Christ.  Although God’s Word testifies otherwise.3

The alarming truth (and it is only alarming if you refuse to believe it) is that Noah and Abram (Abraham) could not have rebelled against the preceptive will of God (His command to build and to leave) because it is also an instance of His decretive will (His purpose in history).  God had set both Noah and Abraham apart (aside) to do that which He willed (decreed).  Had they rebelled they would have been sinning against God, but the grace of God had changed their hearts to not only want to obey but also equipped them to obey. Therefore, they kept the preceptive will of God because it was a part of His decretive will.

We are given an example of the opposite in 2Sam 24.

In this passage David is the current reigning king of Israel.  In the historical retelling, the reader finds that David sins and the result of that sin is the death of 70, 000 men (2Sam 24.15).  David knew that he had sinned against God, and pleaded for the Lord’s mercy in punishing him (2Sam 24.14).

If David sinned, then why did 70,000 others die?  The answer is related to the covenantal nature of God, and David’s status as the covenantal head of Israel (civil magistrate).  As we have seen with Adam and Christ Jesus what the covenantal head does, those under them receive the consequences.  For those interested you may check out the following article to see why this is the case: https://kristafal.wordpress.com/2019/04/05/gods-covenant-with-adam/.

So, the question before us is “why did David do what he did?” Well, let’s have a look see.

  • “Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, ‘Go number Israel and Judah” (2Sam 24.1).

What do we learn in this verse?  Well, we see that God is angry at Israel.  We are not told the reason, but we are given this status.  We also see that David’s sin was numbering Israel and Judah.  If we take the time to sift through the rest of the narrative, we find that David’s concern was measuring his military force (cf. 2Sam 24.9). Evidently, David thought it necessary to see what his current military status was in case of conflict.

The reader is blessed with the fortune of having the same account spoken of in another place; namely, 1Chron 21.  This is an instance of a parallel account.  These are helpful to the students of Scripture as they shed more light on what is really going on in the text in question.  Listen to how 1Chron 21 reads:

  • “Then Satan stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel” (v.1).

What do we learn here in this text?  Well, we find that David sinned by numbering Israel, but this time we find that an adversary (identified by many English translations as Satan) has provoked David to number Israel’s military might.  All men are sinners that is our status before our Creator.  And while it may be true that Satan or an unidentified agent of the dark lord (a foreign pagan king threatening Israel?) incited David, he could not say “the devil made me do it” to get out of bearing the responsibility of his action.  We are responsible for our own sin, although the consequences may ripple beyond us.

There is something that I purposefully left out of the observation of the 2Sam 24:1, did you notice it?  Go back and compare the two accounts (2Sam 24:1; 1Chron 21:1), what was left out?  The Chronicler focuses on two agents: David, and an adversary (the Devil and/or one of his ilk), but who does the author of 2Sam focus on?  In 2Sam 24:1 we see that the two agents focused on are: The Lord, and David. Who incited David to sin?  The Lord did: “Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them….”  How can that be?

Here is where things get a bit interesting…

This is where your theological assumptions will either hinder or help your reading of the text.  Exegesis is taking out from the text what is there.  Eisegesis is the opposite, this is where things get smuggled in.  Why?  To protect a vital aspect of your foundational perspective such rescuing devices are proposed.  Such as?  Such as saying that the “and he” in the verse cannot possibly be pointing back to the Lord God.  Why?  Because that would mean that God wanted what transpired to happen to happen.  This is an example of God’s decretive and preceptive will at work.

For David to sin, he would have to go against something purposefully and willfully that God had commanded (preceptive will).  We are not told what exact command David violated, but we do know that he sinned.  So, the question is, why count the army (military might) of Israel?  Many commentators believe that David was feeling threated by some other national force.  First, we see David’s pride being wounded and his doubt being aroused; a violation of the 1st and 2nd commandments.  Second, we see that since his trust has evidently failed in the Lord, he begins to trust in his own power which is to take the Lord’s name in vain; a violation of the 3rd commandment.  How so? As God’s representative man over a nation that was enlisted to be a light to the rest of the pagan world, David’s thoughts and actions reveal a heart that treats God’s Name lightly…what we call blasphemy.  Third, it is possible that this is a violation of the tenth commandment as well “being covetous” of one’s neighbor’s possessions.  If a foreign king and army were threatening David, then David’s numbering may be a sign of wanting to demonstrate his superiority.  This sort of behavior is provoked when we feel inferior to others.  The reason we feel inferior is because we feel as if our neighbor is our better.  Our wanting to prove our superiority is a sign of the jealously that dwells within our hearts.

Now the point is that God knowing David’s heart, used these things to instigate David to sin.  Why?  Well we are now beginning to touch on the decretive will of God.  God knows everything that was, is and shall be (He’s omniscient), this is not a passive knowledge.  God does not learn.  He does not look down the corridors of time seeing what His creatures will do, and then like a boxer react to the blows being thrown.  Rather, God has determined how things will lay out in history (the beginning from the end).  He has established reality and does not leave things to chance or accident.  Like the quantum realm things appear chaotic from our perspective, but just because we fail to see the reasons behind all activity does not mean that there aren’t justified reasons that God has for bringing about all that happens in life: the good, the bad and the ugly, so to speak.

The Lord was angry with Israel and He had determined long ago to deal with whatever idolatry they were being condemned over.  God used His agents (creatures) namely Satan and David to bring about the end that he desired.  He used their sinful dispositions to bring about what He desired (decreed will) in history.  God was sinless in the endeavor because God’s motives were pure and good; whereas, David, Satan and the other agents in this history had impure and evil motivations.  This historical event highlights how God can will for something, but be untainted by sin.   His decretive will is His plan of purpose for all of history, and His preceptive will is the commanded standard by which all mankind is judged.

Suppose you don’t like that and you refuse to believe that and you out-rightly deny that.  What have you gained?  Where should you turn to find answers?  What should govern your thoughts?  What we see in 2Sam 24/1Chron 21 is likewise true of Jesus of Nazareth, God used sinful agents to bring about what He had planned from eternity: “…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 plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4.27-28; cf. 2.23). And not just Him, but Joseph, Job, Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar, Jonah, David, Ruth, Esther, etc., etc., etc.

This paradoxical teaching from Scripture is beyond the grips of our 3lb brains.  I realize even that statement is psychologically unsatisfying, but the fact remains that there are things that God knows and understands that we do not.  And yet we are promised that what He has given us is for our good, if we love Him.  Those who do love Him find the following answer from the Lord satisfying in acceptance of our creaturely limitations:

  • “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deut 29.29; italics added; cf. 2Tim 3.16-17).



1 All other Scripture references in this work shall be of the English Standard Version

2 All the commandments of God found in the books of Moses, expounded upon in the civil sanctions, preached by the prophets, prayerfully sung by the Psalmists, taught through the wisdom writings, and further built upon in the N.T. are binding as ethical/moral precepts for all image bearers.

3 Considering Jesus, see these passages:  Gen 3.15; 49.10; Mic 5.2; Isa 9.6-7; Dan 2.1Pet 3.19-20; Rev 13.8; for Judas Iscariot look to these: Psa 41.9; 109.6-19; John 17.12; Acts 1.16-20, 25.


Comments are closed.