SproulLordsPrayer 5

The Prayer of the Lord

Chapter 5: Your Will Be Done

Over the years of my ministry, I’ve been asked many questions about the Bible, about theology, and about Christian living. But the question I probably have been asked more than any other is this one: how can I know the will of God for my life? If there’s any concept about which there’s confusion among believers today, it is the will of God.
This issue crops up in the Lord’s Prayer, the model prayer Jesus gave to His disciples in response to their request that He teach them how to pray. We’ve seen that He taught them to pray, first, “Hallowed be Your name,” asking that the name of God would be regarded as holy. Then He enjoined them to pray, “Your kingdom come,” which is a request that Christ’s rule and reign would be made manifest in the world. The third petition of the Lord’s Prayer is closely related to the first two and flows out of them in a sense. This petition is, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (
Matt. 6:10
At first glance, it seems incredible that Jesus told His followers to pray that the will of God would be done on earth as it is in heaven. In fact, it seems almost heretical that Jesus would give His church such a mandate. Didn’t He know that the will of God is always accomplished? Didn’t He understand the biblical teaching on divine sovereignty, the truth that all things come to pass because God has decreed that they should?
When I’m asked about the will of God and I try to unravel this difficult subject, I usually start by reminding people that there are at least two different Greek words in the New Testament that are translated by the English word “will.” These words, thelemaand boulema, have several nuances of meaning, so it’s not always immediately apparent by looking at a passage from the New Testament exactly what is meant by the will of God. However, there are three ways in which this concept is most commonly understood.
The first is what we call the sovereign, efficacious will of God. When the Bible speaks of the will of God in this sense, it is describing the will that causes whatever He decrees to come to pass. When God willed the universe to be created and said, “Let there be light,” that expression of His sovereign will was instantly fulfilled; as Genesis says, “there was light.” God spoke and the lights came on. Likewise, when Christ commanded Lazarus to rise from the dead and come out of his tomb, that command was efficacious—Lazarus obeyed instantly and immediately. The sovereign, efficacious will of God is the will that brings to pass whatsoever He decrees.
Second, the Bible speaks of the will of God with respect to what we call His preceptive will. The preceptive will has to do with His law and commandments, the precepts He issues to regulate the behavior of His creation. It is the will of God that you have no other gods before Him, that you honor your father and your mother, that you remember the Sabbath Day, and so forth. Please note that the preceptive will of God can be violated and is violated every day. Being sinners, we disobey the will of God.
Third, the Bible speaks of the will of God in terms of His basic disposition or inclination. In this sense, God’s will has to do with what is pleasing or displeasing to Him.
Let me illustrate how a verse of Scripture can be interpreted differently if we apply these different nuances of meaning. The Bible says, “The Lord is … not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (
2 Pet. 3:9
, emphasis added). If the text means that God does not will that any should perish in the sovereign, efficacious sense, then it must be the case that none perish. If it means that He does not will that any should perish in the preceptive sense, it simply means that God has stated that no one is to engage in the activity of perishing, and to do so is a sin. If it is referring to God’s disposition, it is simply saying that He is not pleased when someone perishes, that He does not enjoy the reality that not all are saved. Obviously, the first two understandings can be ruled out by teachings found elsewhere in Scripture, so that we may conclude that Peter is telling us that God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked.
Jesus’ Intended Meaning
Clearly this concept of the will of God is central to our understanding of the Christian life and of the Scriptures. And we see that it is important even in our prayer life, for Jesus instructs us to pray that God’s will would be done. But what precisely was Jesus telling His disciples to pray for when He gave them this petition?
This petition could be a plea that God’s sovereign will might be accomplished. If ever there was a prayer request that we could know for certain would come to pass, it would be that one, for we know that the will of God is going to be done ultimately. If this is the correct understanding, then Jesus is saying, “I want you to remember again, when you’re on your knees before God, who He is and who you are, and whose will is going to prevail.” We certainly need frequent reminders of that truth. If I had a dollar for every professing Christian who has told me that the sovereignty of God is limited by the free will of man, I’d be very wealthy. I can only hope that those who make that statement haven’t really thought about it very deeply, because it comes perilously close to blasphemy in that it makes man sovereign. The better approach is to say, “Yes, we have free will, but our free will is always and everywhere limited by God’s sovereignty.” When there’s a conflict between my will and God’s will, mine has to give way. Not my will, but His will, is sovereign. So perhaps Jesus is simply giving us a reminder here of who is sovereign, building into the Lord’s Prayer a safeguard against an exalted view of the human will and providing a way for His people to acknowledge God’s sovereignty.
However, I don’t think that’s the point. I say that because Jesus does not simply tell us to pray “Your will be done.” Instead, He adds a qualifier, telling us to pray that God’s will might be done “on earth as it is in heaven.” These words suggest that there is a discrepancy between the accomplishment of whatever will of God Jesus has in view here on earth and its accomplishment in heaven.
We know that the sovereign will of God is always accomplished, not just in heaven but also on earth. That’s why I do not think Jesus is referring here to the sovereign will of God. I think He must have the preceptive will of God in view, because the preceptive will of God is always obeyed by angels and by glorified believers in heaven. There is no sin in heaven. There is no conflict between the will of the creatures who are gathered around the presence of God and His holy will. This is because all who are in heaven have been brought into full conformity to the law of God. Rather than chafing against God’s law, they glory in it.
In its very first question, the Westminster Shorter Catechism [[OSISR:WSC.1]] asks, “What is the chief end of man?” It then answers, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever.” When I learned that question and answer as a child, it didn’t make sense to me, although I got the message. I concluded that in order to glorify God, I had to obey Him; that I had to do what God wanted me to do rather than what I wanted to do. In short, I understood that I was supposed to be a good boy, but I couldn’t see how there could be any enjoyment in that. Even after years of studying theology, I still struggle with it. You struggle with it too. Because we are fallen beings, we believe we will find joy and pleasure not in obedience to God but in sin. That prospect of joy and pleasure is what makes sin so attractive. However, there’s a difference between joy and pleasure, an eternal difference. In that first question, the catechism is seeking to communicate the link between the glorification of God and joy. Our chief end, our main purpose in our existence, our primary reason for being, is to glorify God. There’s a bonus in that: as we glorify Him through obedience, we enjoy Him.
Those who are gathered around the presence of God in heaven are doing two things. First, they’re glorifying God. Isn’t it interesting that the final stage of our sanctification is described in the New Testament as “glorification”? We will be glorified, and our glorification will be unto His glorification. The glorified ones are the ones who glorify God in heaven. Second, the believers now in heaven are enjoying God. The glorification of God in heaven brings unspeakable, eternal, uninterrupted joy. Jesus told His disciples that He had come so that “your joy may be full” (
John 15:11
), and that fullness occurs when we reach heaven.
In this petition, then, Jesus is affirming that the will of God is done in heaven. However, He is also affirming that it is not done here. People here on earth do not strive to glorify God. They do not seek the kingdom of God. They do not hallow the name of God. So Jesus says we ought to pray, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
“If It Be Your Will …”
To my great distress, I sometimes hear people say, in their zeal for fervency and efficacy in prayer, that we should never qualify our prayer requests with the words “if it be Your will.” Some will even say that to attach those words, those conditional terms, to our prayers is an act of unbelief. We are told today that in the boldness of faith we are to “name it and claim it.” I suppose I should be more measured in my response to this trend, but I can’t think of anything more foreign to the teaching of Christ. We come to the presence of God in boldness, but never in arrogance. Yes, we can name and claim those things God has clearly promised in Scripture. For instance, we can claim the certainty of forgiveness if we confess our sins before Him, because He promises that. But when it comes to getting a raise, purchasing a home, or finding healing from a disease, God hasn’t made those kind of specific promises anywhere in Scripture, so we are not free to name and claim those things.
As I mentioned earlier, when we come before God, we must remember two simple facts—who He is and who we are. We must remember that we’re talking to the King, the Sovereign One, the Creator, but we are only creatures. If we will keep those facts in mind, we will pray politely. We will say, “By Your leave,” “As You wish,” “If You please,” and so on. That’s the way we go before God. To say that it is a manifestation of unbelief or a weakness of faith to say to God “if it be Your will” is to slander the very Lord of the Lord’s Prayer.
It was Jesus, after all, who, in His moment of greatest passion, prayed regarding the will of God. In his Gospel, Luke tells us that immediately following the Last Supper:
Coming out, He went to the Mount of Olives, as He was accustomed, and His disciples also followed Him. When He came to the place, He said to them, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.” And He was withdrawn from them about a stone’s throw, and He knelt down and prayed, saying, “Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me; nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done.” Then an angel appeared to Him from heaven, strengthening Him. And being in agony, He prayed more earnestly. Then His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground. (
Luke 22:39–44
It is important to see what Jesus prays here. He says, “Not My will, but Yours, be done.” Jesus was not saying, “I don’t want to be obedient” or “I refuse to submit.” Jesus was saying: “Father, if there’s any other way, all things being equal, I would rather not have to do it this way. What You have set before Me is more ghastly than I can contemplate. I’m entering into My grand passion and I’m terrified, but if this is what You want, this is what I’ll do. Not My will, but Your will, be done, because My will is to do Your will.”
I also want you to notice what happened after Jesus prayed. Luke tells us that an angel came to Him and strengthened Him. The angel was the messenger of God. He came from heaven with the Father’s answer to Jesus’ prayer. That answer was this: “You must drink the cup.”
This is what it means to pray that the will of God would be done. It is the highest expression of faith to submit to the sovereignty of God. The real prayer of faith is the prayer that trusts God no matter whether the answer is yes or no. It takes no faith to “claim,” like a robber, something that is not ours to claim. We are to come to God and tell Him what we want, but we must trust Him to give the answer that is best for us. That is what Jesus did.
Because Luke tells us that the Father sent an angel to strengthen His Son, I would expect Jesus’ agony of soul to have been alleviated. It appears, however, that with the coming of the strength from the angel came an increase in the agony of Christ, an increase so profound that He began to sweat so profusely that it was “like great drops of blood.” In a sermon on
Luke 22:44
, Jonathan Edwards said that this increase in Jesus’ agony was due to a full realization of the will of God for Him in His passion. He had come to the garden with the fear that He would have to drink the cup. Once He knew it was indeed God’s will that He drink it, He had a new fear—that He would not be able to do it. In other words, Jesus now was in agony that He not come short of complete and perfect obedience to the will of God.
But He did it. He drank the cup to the last drop. And in that moment, Jesus didn’t give us words to show us how to pray; He gave us His life as an example of praying that the will of God would be done on earth as it is in heaven.
SproulLordsPrayer 5
© 2009 R.C. Sproul Trust. All worldwide rights reserved.
Used with permission under license.