The Distinction from Scripture
Reformed Dogmatics, 2:241, reprinted 2004, Backer Academic edition, this quote was compiled by David Ponter
But though He wills all creatures as means and for his own sake, He wills some more than others to the degree they are more direct and suitable means for his glorification. God is a Father to all his creatures, but He is that especially to his children. His affection for everything He created is not as deep as his affection for his church, and that in turn is not as great as his love for Christ, the Son of his good pleasure. We speak of a general, a special, and a very special providence; in the same way we make as many distinctions in the will of God (as it relates to his creatures) as there are creatures. For the free will of God is as richly variegated as that whole world is. Hence, it must not be conceived as an indifferent power, a blind force, but as a rich and powerful divine energy, the wellspring of the abundant life that creation spreads out before our eyes.
In that world, however, there is one thing that creates a special difficulty for the doctrine of the will of God, and that is the fact of evil, both evil as guilt and evil as punishment, in an ethical as well as a physical sense. Though evil is ever so much under God’s control, it cannot in the same sense and in the same way be the object of his will as the good. Hence, with a view to these two very different, in fact diametrically opposed, objects we must again make a distinction in that will of God, as Scripture itself shows.
There is a big difference between the will of God that prescribes what we must do (Matt. 7:21; 12:50; John 4:34; 7:17; Rom. 12:2), and the will of God that tells us what He does and will do (Ps. 115:3; Dan. 4:17, 25,32,35; Rom. 9:18-19; Eph. 1:5,9,11; Rev. 4:11). The petition that God’s will may be done (Matt. 6:10) is very different in tenor from the childlike and resigned prayer: “Your will be done” (Matt. 26:42; Acts 21:14). Over and over in history we see the will of God assert itself in two ways. God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son, yet he does not let it happen (Gen. 22). He wants Pharaoh to let his people Israel go, yet hardens his heart so that he does not do it (Exod. 4:21). He has the prophet tell Hezekiah that he will die; still He adds fifteen years to his life (Isa. 38:1,5). He prohibits us from condemning the innocent, yet Jesus is delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God (Acts 2:23; 3:18; 4:28). God does not will sin; He is far from iniquity. He forbids it and punishes it severely, yet it exists and is subject to his rule (Ex. 4:21; Josh. 11:20; 1 Sam. 2:25; 2 Sam. 16:10; Acts 2:23; 4:28; Rom. 1:24,26; 2 Thess. 2:11; etc.). He wills the salvation of all (Eze. 18:23,32; 33:11; 1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9), yet has mercy on whom He wills and hardens whom He wills (Rom. 9:18).
Historic Reformed Quotes on the Distinction
Still, however, the will of God is not at variance with itself. It undergoes no change. He makes no pretence of not willing what He wills, but while in Himself the will is one and undivided, to us it appears manifold, because, from the feebleness of our intellect, we cannot comprehend how, though after a different manner, He wills and wills not the very same thing.
William Perkins 1601
A Treatise of God’s Free Grace, and Man’s Free Will (Cambridge, 1601), p. 44< HT: Tony Byrne
Answer: There is but one will in God: yet does it not equally will all things, but in diverse respects it does will and nil the same thing. He wills the conversion of Jerusalem, in that He approves it as a good thing in itself: in that He commands it, and exhorts men to it: in that He gives them all outward means of their conversion. He wills it not, in that He did not decree effectually to work their conversion. For God does approve, and He may require many things, which nevertheless for just causes known to Himself, He will not do. The confirmation of the angels that fell, God approved as a thing good in itself, yet did not He will to confirm them. A judge in compassion approves and will[s] the life of a malefactor: and yet withal he wills the execution of justice in his death. Even so God sometimes wills that in his signifying will, which He wills not in the will of his good pleasure.
A Summary of Rutherford on the Revealed Will, by Dr. Guy Richard, 4 paragraphs