Book Review: God’s Will and the Christian, by R. C. Sproul
R.C. Sproul’s God’s Will and the Christian is a longer, more theologically complex look at the will of God in the Christian’s life. He makes essentially the same points as Packer, Edwards, and MacArthur, but as is Sproul’s wont, he couches the entire discussion in the categories of classic Reformed theology. His treatment of the issues is typically solid and typically understandable. He does a great job of taking complex issues and following them clearly and tightly to their logical conclusions. The book has four chapters: God’s will, Man’s will, Job, and Marriage. The first two chapters, of course, carry the bulk of the theological discussion. Sproul discusses the will of God under the classical heads of His decretive and preceptive wills and His will of disposition. There is also a section on biblical righteousness. The chapter on man’s will discusses the nature of the human will by examining the Augustinian formulation of kinds of freedom (posse pecarre, posse non-pecarre, non-posse pecarre, non-posse non-pecarre). He concludes the discussion of free will by appealing to Jonathan Edwards’ conception of free will—that we as fallen human beings have free will in the sense that we are not constrained to act in any certain way, but that we have a moral inability to choose the good. He concludes by teaching us that our freedom is always restricted by God’s sovereignty, not the other way around. “There is a God who is sovereign,” he writes, “which is to say, He is absolutely free. My freedom is always within limits. My freedom is always constrained by the sovereignty of God. I have freedom to do things as I please, but if my freedom conflicts with the decretive will of God, there is no question as to the outcome—God’s will will be done and not mine,” (45).The chapter ends with a discussion of the mystery of why Adam used his will to sin in the Garden of Eden.
These first two chapters are a good, concise summary of the theological issues involved in the will of God. As a pastor, though, you will need to use them wisely. If you have a young Christian asking about the will of God for her life—whether in career or marriage—she probably will not understand why you are asking her to read about the decretive and preceptive will of God. It may be better to give her a book that discusses her problems without the difficult theology, and allow your preaching of the Word to slowly shape her theological understanding.
That said, any good book that you might give such a young Christian will come to the same conclusions about career and marriage that Sproul does. What is useful about Sproul’s book is that it grounds those answers solidly in theology—and in theological language. A thoughtful, more mature Christian could benefit hugely from seeing how the choices he makes in his life are related to the weightiest issues of God’s will and decree. He might benefit from seeing how some of the questions he is asking about the will of God for his life may be out of bounds, and improper for a Christian to ask, because by them he is attempting to look into the secret, decretive will of God instead of making sure he is living inside the bounds of God’s preceptive will. Here is Sproul’s diagnosis of the problem that plagues many evangelicals’ questions about the will of God, and one of the most important paragraphs in the book (15): One of the great tragedies of contemporary Christendom is the preoccupation of so many Christians with the secret decretive will of God to the exclusion and neglect of the preceptive will. We want to peek behind the veil, to catch a glimpse of our personal future. We seem more concerned with our horoscope than with our disobedience, more concerned with what the stars in their courses are doing than with what we are doing. The chapters on job and marriage are practical discussions of how Christians can make such decisions with the preceptive will of God—the Scriptures—as a guide. In the chapter on jobs, Sproul discusses the questions, 1) What can I do? 2) What do I like to do? 3) What would I like to be able to do? 4) What should I do? It is the last question that causes people so many problems, but Sproul advises: “If what you would like to do can be of service to God, then by all means you should be doing it,” (67). In other words, it is not necessary to wait for a specific “word” from God telling you to apply at this specific company. To do so is to ask for a look inside the secret will of God for your life, the will that you are not necessarily to see until after the fact. Much more important is to determine what you are motivated to do, and then see if that fits within the boundaries set by God’s preceptive will. If so, then do it!
All in all, this is a very useful book, especially for the theologically astute seeker of God’s will. The step it takes above other books I have read on guidance is that it explains theologically why Christians should not expect specific “words” from God, but instead should expect to make their decisions by looking at the Bible. That is a valuable addition to the discussion.