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Borrowing Brains: A Question Concerning God’s Will

Here’s a good question that was submitted by Mark, a pastor-friend who is a frequent reader and occasional commenter:

I am continuing through a study of 1 Timothy and have reached chapter 2, which is turning out to be quite a challenge!

My struggle centers on verse 4 and the word “desires” (thelo). Many commentators seem to imply that this word refers to a “heart desire” as opposed to the “decretive” will of God, which would be expressed by the Greek word boulomai.

My question then is: why is the word boulomai used in 2 Peter 3:9? This seems to fly in the face of much of the commentary (and sermons) I have read/heard.

Lookin’ for some help. )

Certainly some who check in here on occasion have done some study on these passages, words, or concepts. Feel free…


20 Responses

  1. The distinction between θέλω and βούλομαι cannot be treated as a hard and fast rule. Both are quite clearly capable of invading the other’s territory. The more important issue, in my view, is the contextual meaning of πάντας ἀνθρώπους and τινας. I’m inclined to think, based on the numerous contextual hints, that neither of the referents should be understood in the fullest sense of “every human being who has lived, is living, or will one day live (except Jesus).” If you come to that conclusion, then deciding whether God/the Lord decrees it or merely desires it is immaterial.

  2. Phil,

    I’m not sure that I would agree that the more important issue is “all people” (I Tim. 2:4) and “any” (2 Pet. 3:9). For one thing, there are a lot of dead people who I am fairly certain were not believers. Additionally, I know that many of the living today will not believe. Those things are undeniable.

    As a result, I believe the weight (at least a lot of it) rests on God’s will in these passages. Ironically, two of the most respected expositors that I know of – John MacArthur and Dave Doran – both emphasize God’s will in their expositions of the Timothy passage.

    MacArthur here (the comments pertinent to this discussion are towards the end of the transcript)-

    Doran here – http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=5190310230

    I am inclined to agree with your observation that thelo and boulomai are somewhat interchangeable. Unfortunately, that doesn’t help me piece all this together. :)

    Thanks for your thoughts.

  3. Mark, I think you may be misunderstanding Phil’s point. These verses raise a dilemma for all interpreters since if taken at face value (and without other Scriptures) they seem to offer a proposition that contradicts reality:

    1. God wills all to be saved.
    2. All are not saved.

    For the Universalist, there’s no problem—he just ignores “other Scriptures” and has all men eventually saved. We know that that’s not an option. So how are the rest of us to take these passages? In my experience, Bible-believers have tended to address the issue in one of two ways:

    1. Some limit the meaning of “all,” usually by seeing it as a reference to all the elect, all sorts of men, etc. (This would be Phil’s position, I think, and what we’d typically refer to as “limited atonement.”)

    2. Some limit the meaning of thelo/boulomai, taking the words to describe a desire in such texts vs. a decree. (I’m assuming that this would be Doran’s position.)

    Disclaimer: I’ve probably explained them in such a way that proponents of both will be unhappy with my representation. Sorry.

    FWIW, I lean toward the second explanation. But I don’t think it rides on a distinction between thelo and boulomai, both of which seem to be broad enough terms to convey either a desire or a decree, context being the determining factor.

    At any rate, both positions raise fairly complicated theological issues.


  4. I echo the comments above that boulomai and thelo have overlapping semantic ranges. If indeed the “all men” 1 Tim 2:4 has reference to every single human on the planet (and Phil is right in pointing out that there are contextual factors that bring this understanding into question), then God’s will here cannot be decretal (because it doesn’t happen, and God does all of his decretal will).

    At the same time, I think that the English translation “desire” comes across as a bit anemically, too. This translation, while acceptable, seems to bring to mind a deep-seated and earnest wish that remains unfulfilled because God has no power to effect it. This in turn fuels the Arminian/Pelagian concept that God has ceded to man the deciding vote on this issue–and all that God can do now is hope.

    I’ve tilted in my explanations to describing God’s will, in passages like 1 Tim 2:4, as one of dispassionate moral expectation–what God finds “acceptable” (v. 3). Edwards called this the “will of command”; several of the Reformers opted for the designation “preceptive” (as opposed to “decretive”) will. This explanation seems better than descriptions like “permissive will” or “will of desire” that are regularly used. That is, it seems to eliminate notions of frustrated anxiety on God’s part. God wills it, just as he does man’s sanctification (1 Thes 4:3), but there is no hint here either of decretal certainty OR of divine angst.

    John Piper has a very helpful summary article on this topic in Still Sovereign (Baker, 2000), 107-131.

    (BTW, Phil, I can live with explanations in 1 Timothy 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9 that shift discussion to the “all” and “us” in each passage respectively. There are good exegetical reasons to suggest this. I’ve wavered between these two explanations of these texts, but lately I’ve tilted more to the position I’ve laid out above).

    M. Snoeberger

  5. For those that do not have the book that Mark S. referenced above here is a link to that article from Desiring God, but…you really should buy the book…lots of helpful articles by leading theologians on key issues related to a God-centered soteriology.


  6. Thanks, Mark. Very good.

    I understand why the idea of a “frustrated desire” is problematic. I agree. On the other hand, I find it challenging to describe what’s happening when what God…um…orders(?) He doesn’t strictly ordain. I would cite 1 Thes 4:3, as you have—God’s will (command? desire? order?) is that we be morally holy; however, we are not—not yet.

    My understanding of the texts under discussion is that they express something akin to Ezekiel 33:11—a benevolent God has no delight in the sinner’s destruction. Yet, there are also Scriptures which make clear that He has sovereignly both ordained it and is glorified by it.

    It’s complicated. Too complicated for my mind, or probably for finite humanity in general. Even speaking of what God orders in His benevolence as somehow different from what He ordains in His sovereignty seems to put God at odds with Himself—as though He were a schizophrenic or something. That’s obviously not the case.


  7. BTW, what in the contexts of 1 Tim 2:4 and 2 Pet 3:9 do you think might suggest something less than “all” and “any” in the absolute senses of the words? I understand the theological reasoning; is there something immediately textual?

  8. Chris,

    Thanks for the help here. I think I do understand what Phil is saying… I was trying to imply that his thoughts must be automatically assumed when dealing with this passage. As a result, it seems we must go elsewhere to get further clarity and I sought that clarity from the meaning of “will”. However, this doesn’t really help much either because of the interchangeable nature of thelo and boulomai (which makes me contemplate much of the teaching I have heard during my study of this – especially MacArthur who emphatically states that boulemai is decretive and thelo is desire…this causes obvious problems with 2 Peter 3:9).

    With regard to the Timothy passage and the word “all”…I think the context that the Ephesian church was fraught with false teaching of exclusivity (Judaizers, and Gentile pre gnostics) is important. It seems that Paul was combatting those who were presenting an exclusive (national, ethnic, higher knowledge) gospel by saying that we should pray for all; that Christ is the Savior of all; that Christ is the ransom of all; and even at the end of the section Paul emphasizes his ministry to the Gentiles over against the Judaizers. So the focal point is that we as humans should not exclude anyone from the gospel. That’s about the only way my feeble mind can even begin to comprehend this.

    Brother Snoeberger,

    Thanks for your thoughts. I appreciate all that I’ve seen you write (here and elsewhere). I wish (thelo, or is it doulomai?) I had your brain. :)

  9. Chris,

    In 2 Peter 3:9, the “all” is limited by the “us,” which backs the question up to the identity of “us.” Peter could be speaking on behalf of all humanity and saying that God desires the salvation of all people, or he could be speaking on behalf of all his readers and saying that God both desires and effects the preservation of all believers until the eschaton by an act of his decretive will.

    The “all” of 1 Timothy 2:4 could also be restricted. Paul could well be saying that God saves all kind of people (even kings!) so pray for them, and God may use this as a means to effecting a society where we can live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness (v. 2).

    (I’m not sure that this is the necessary explanation of these passages. I think it can safely be said that the word “all” is used in a restricted sense quite often in Scripture, so this interpretation of 2 Peter 3 and 1 Timothy 2 is not particularly bothersome for me. But like I said, I tilt to the two wills understanding.)


  10. Mark S. and Ryan,

    Thanks for the link to the Piper article. That has to be one of the most thorough treatments I have ever seen on the topic.

    To all,

    As I read back through the thread, I fear that I may have put MacArthur in a bad light. That was not my intent and if it came across that way, I apologize. I greatly appreciate his ministry and his willingness to make his resources available to the public. I don’t wish to come across as critical…just thinking out loud.

  11. Two clarifications from those more theologically astute than I am (which isn’t exactly a big hint):

    1. Some limit the “all” in these passages while still holding to an unlimited view of the atonement.

    2. Some hold that God desires (for lack of a better term) the salvation of all while Christ only actually atoned for the elect (limited atonement).

    In other words, one’s interpretation of these 2 passages isn’t necessarily driven by his view of the atonement.

  12. Thanks for the thought-provoking discussion here. While I am not familiar with the Greek discussion, I have profited from it the Piper article referenced above, though I am still chewing on both.

    I am personally studying “God’s will” from a personal perspective, i.e., in daily decision-making. I have a Sunday School block to teach this summer and this information will help me expand upon a few ideas.

    I have been studying through the book Guidance and the Voice of God by Jensen and Payne. I have appreciated their perspective very much.

    I realize this discussion centers on soteriology. I apologize if my comments are out of place.

  13. Mark P,
    We have been studying through 1 Tim in our ABF the past month (or two or three…). I think your understanding of the verse in its context is on the money. FWIW, and yes Chris, your understanding of this verse can refer to “all types of people” while still holding to an unlimited atonement based on other texts, as I do. His next question will probably come in 4:10. . .

  14. The key to those who argue that boule means the decreedal will is:

    Jas 1:18 Of his own will begat He us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.

    I have heard anti-Calvinist preachers waxing lyrical about thelema in their favorite passages but ignoring this one, which is “boule.”

    The second problem about predestination that is never dealt with, that Whitefield points out in his correspondence to Wesley, is that all sides agree that the sin nature is predestined to pass unchecked or chosen into all of Adam’s posterity and God would be just in sending us to hell because of it and not providing a way of salvation. This is a good riposte to those who claim that Calvinsim inevitable leads to the conclusion that God is the author of sin – they have the the same problem!

  15. It’s complicated. Too complicated for my mind, or probably for finite humanity in general. Even speaking of what God orders in His benevolence as somehow different from what He ordains in His sovereignty seems to put God at odds with Himself—as though He were a schizophrenic or something. That’s obviously not the case.

    Sorry for jumping in on this late – I’ve been away with very little time to access the internet.

    We covered a remarkable example of this phenomenon in SS last week. In the oracle against in Moab in Isaiah 15 and 16, three times we see God (through the mouthpiece of Isaiah) empathizing with Moab’s plight while at the same time judging them and actually causing the plight (Isa. 15:15; 16:9, 11). It is thought provoking to read these sentiments that can even appear concurrently: “I have put an end to the shouting. Therefore my inner parts moan like a lyre for Moab.” (Isa. 16:10b, 11a)

    God does not appear dispassionate in this passage but I don’t think I would call it divine angst, either. I’m not sure how I would explain this except to say what we already know about maintaining a tension between God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility. I think these passages are designed to teach us at least three things: (1) a part of the character of God that we should emulate, contra Jonah who had no heart for the people of Nineveh; (2) that God would show mercy if sinners repent, like the Ninevites did and like Ruth did (which is very interesting for several reasons, not the least of which is the rejection of Moab in Deut 23:3-6); and (3) that while we should rejoice in the vindication of God and His program, which of necessity results in the destruction of the wicked, we should at the same time mourn for those still in sin and rebellion against God because of the consequences that are sure to follow.

    I’m not sure if any of this helps with unraveling the conundrums of the present discussion but I though I would add it as another data point to consider.

  16. This is obviously a difficult study…one that has challenged theologians for centuries. In that respect, I understand that we are not likely to uncover anything new or earthshattering.

    I still struggle with the inconsistency of demanding that boulomai is the “decretive” will of God in passages like James 1:18, but not in passages like 2 Peter 3:9. Even in the Piper’s excellent essay referred to earlier, the explanation of 2 Peter 3:9 seems somewhat forced by one’s theological bent.

    I am content to say that passages like I Timothy 2 make it abundantly clear that human beings have no business excluding other human beings from the gospel. We obediently proclaim the gospel, and God saves sinners. Total comprehension of the full will and purpose of God is just not going to happen this side of heaven. Until then, we can offer doxologies (similar to Paul’s in I Tim. 1:17) for the grace of God that continues to super-abound to the foremost of sinners.

    Someone mentioned that the next difficulty would be I Tim. 4:10. What about 2:14-15?! :)

    Thanks for a good discussion. It has been very helpful to me.

  17. One brief follow-up on Andy’s note. When I use the term “dispassionate” I am using it in the sense that it was used in theological discussions prior to the late 20th century, as meaning that no creature can independently inflict any emotional duress upon God so that he is moved inevitably to an action that he would otherwise not have performed or to a passion (lit., an instance of “suffering,” hence my term “angst”) that he would not otherwise have felt.

    Pelagian, Arminain, and more recently, open theist expressions adamantly deny the doctrine of divine impassibility, and it has been a frustrating trend among recent theologians of all stripes to dismiss and even ridicule the doctrine because it has been essentially redefined as “lacking emotions.”

    Anyway, all this background is to say that God’s impassibility is vital to understanding 1 Tim 2:4. By using the term I am not saying that God lacks affections toward unbelievers, but to say that these are not independently “wrought” (as Shedd describes it) upon him by the free acts of man. Instead these affections are dispositional to the divine nature. God is neither surprised nor rendered anxious by the shortcomings of mankind, because he anticipates, knows, and directs all their actions. All this needs to come to bear on the nature of God’s “desire” in 1 Tim 2. I’m not saying that God lacks emotions (as Andy has rightly identified in Isaiah 15, 16), but that he lacks passions.



  18. Mark (not Dr. Snoeberger),

    Regarding your angst over giving boulomai different meanings in different contexts I would encourage you to note Phil Gons’ point at the beginning of the discussion that the two terms for will have significant semantic overlap.

    Phil wrote: The distinction between θέλω and βούλομαι cannot be treated as a hard and fast rule. Both are quite clearly capable of invading the other’s territory.

    In other words it is not the term itself that necessarily determines if God’s decretal will or his preceptive will is in view, but the context ( both immediate and broader theological).


  19. Sorry Mark (not S :-))
    I was already past 2:14-15 so I forgot about the angst that that produced–particularly when I told the ladies that the assurance of their salvation increased the more kids they had. (Kidding of course).

  20. 2 Peter 3:9…I know I’m almost 3 years late on this, but was discussing just these things the other day with some folks and I have a question…Does the fact that 2 Peter 3:9 uses a negative in connection with boulomai have anything to do with it? The arguments thus far seem to stem from the “positive” side of God’s will (by positive I mean the opposite of NOT) (by will I mean both decretal and moral).


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