The Good Gift of the Will

In Reformed circles, we get skittish when people talk warmly about human will. The “gospel-centered” movement – which aspires to follow the example of the Reformation – sees itself as recovering the purity of grace from the chaff of self-centered Western religion. Part of our self-definition is the rejection of the primacy of human will in salvation or sanctification. That instinct has truth behind it: we are saved, sanctified, and glorified by the gracious will of God.

That being said, what if we’ve been so quick to reject any hint of self-salvation that we’ve lost the beauty and power of the sanctified will?

As a reaction to sermons structured something like this:

  1. The Bible shows that God’s will for your life includes X.
  2. Therefore, go do X.

The “gospel-centered” movement has shifted toward sermons that look more like this:

  1. The Bible shows that God’s will for your life includes X.
  2. You are by yourself unable to do X.
  3. Thank God that Jesus has satisfied the need for X on your behalf.

That shifts our focus from ourselves to God’s substitutionary grace – all to the good. But that isn’t complete. A sermon – a gospel-saturated, God-oriented, Christ-exalting sermon – isn’t complete until it brings the grace of God to bear on our actions in our present life. In other words, on the will.

Here’s a complete picture, that matches New Testament examples like Paul (Romans 12:1ff) and Peter (Acts 2:28ff):

  1. The Bible shows that God’s will for your life includes X.
  2. You are by yourself unable to do X.
  3. Thank God that Jesus has satisfied the need for X on your behalf.
  4. By the grace of God, pursue X with all your heart.

In other words, gospel truth hasn’t saturated us until it compels us to use our wills to act on it.

The will is biblical.

If the word “will” makes you feel icky, pick another. But whatever word you use to define “a person’s ability to weigh choices, pick one, and follow it through,” a plain-sense reading of Scripture shows God treating us as if we have it.

  • “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live …” (Deuteronomy 30:19)
  • “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)
  • If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. (Colossians 3:1)

Yes, our will is corrupted by the Fall. Yes, it’s in bondage against God’s glory until God sets it free. But all caveats caveated, the stubborn fact remains: God treats us like we can (and should) make meaningful choices.

The will is commonsensical.

Even the staunchest will-averse Calvinist treats himself and others as if we have the real ability to make real choices. We choose the restaurant where we want to eat dinner. We debate our friend’s choice of restaurant, in the hope that we’ll persuade her to choose ours instead. We ask our growing children to make wise choices about their habits or their friends.

Ministry in chronically poor areas highlights the beauty of a will used well. We can counteract many of the systemic and circumstantial factors that trap someone in poverty; but ultimately, a person must also learn to make and maintain wise decisions to move out of poverty into financial health. It doesn’t happen – or at least doesn’t stick – without the will.

The will is a gift.

Early Church fathers recognized that our ability to weigh and make choices was part of what made us more like God than like the animals. When Psalm 8 describes us as “made … a little lower than the heavenly beings” (v. 5), Eastern and Western thinkers alike saw our decision-making power as part of that special image. Here’s Gregory of Nyssa:

… for the soul immediately shows its royal and exalted character, far removed as it is from the lowliness of private station, in that it owns no lord, and is self-governed, swayed autocratically by its own will; for to whom else does this belong than to a king? (“On the Making of Man”)

The fallen or poorly-used will gives us nothing; but once made truly alive and empowered by the Holy Spirit, the will becomes a means by which we glorify God and become more like Christ. Here’s Paul:

“Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” – 1 Timothy 4:7-8

And what is “training” but the exercise of the will?

If we’re willing to accept that the will is real and that it might, when redeemed and empowered by grace, be a gift that can be used for God’s glory, how can we work that into our teaching? Some quick suggestions:

  1. Talk about the will.

As you teach the beauty of God’s saving and sanctifying grace, teach how that grace liberates and empowers us to choose more of God’s glory and more of our neighbors’ good. Uphold the goodness and beauty of choices that honor God.

  1. Appeal to the will.

We tend to think we can’t get excited about God’s grace unless we simultaneously diminish human choice. But though the Bible affirms that God’s choice is more important (e.g., John 15:16), it never shies from appealing to the will of its readers. The speakers and writers of the Bible give commands, make appeals, issue warnings, all with the assumption that people might hear them and make different choices on the basis of them.

  1. Cultivate the will.

Our ability to make choices and act on them is like any other ability: it needs to be practiced. Is it possible to have a highly disciplined sinner? Absolutely. But the Bible equally affirms the beauty of a highly disciplined saint. We should challenge ourselves and challenge one another to practice godliness, and celebrate when we see our wills made stronger.

Image: “The Education of the Children of Clovis,” by Alma Tadema



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