Heidelberg Catechism Lesson 49

Q. 124. Which is the third petition?
Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”;[1] that is, grant that we and all men may renounce our own will,[2] and without murmuring obey thy will,[3] which is only good; that so every one may attend to, and perform the duties of his station and calling,[4] as willingly and faithfully as the angels do in heaven.[5]
[1] Matthew 6:10;  [2] Matthew 16:24; Titus 2:12;  [3] Luke 22:42;  [4] 1 Corinthians 7:24; Ephesians 4:1;  [5] Psalm 103:20.


What does the will of God refer to? There are those who speak of God’s will as having many facets: decretive will, desiderative will, perceptive will, punitive will, etc., etc. But such formulations are often used to justify contradictory assertions concerning God’s purpose in the world. In this way, someone may say, “God wills to have all men, without exception, to be saved,” and in the same breath say, “God does not will to have all men, without exception, to be saved.” When asked how that is possible, he replies: “God wills desideratively that all will be saved, but decretively, He does not will all to be saved.” This clever innovation is akin to saying: “1 is not 0, mathematically; but 1 can be 0 emotionally.” It makes our glorious, sovereign God into a complex, contradictory being of man’s imagination.
Neither logic nor Scripture may be summoned honestly and rationally to support such a doctrine. However, the Scripture does speak of the will of God in two distinct, though related, ways, much like the way we speak about man’s will. When a man does anything, he does it according to his will. But a man may also write a will, in which he declares how he wishes his estate to be distributed after his decease. It does not take much thinking to see that the two wills are actually quite different. One refers to the man’s volitional choice; the other refers to his directive for others to do.
In the case of God, His will refers firstly to His eternal counsel or purpose, which is also brought to pass in the providential outworking of what He has decreed. Notice the difference between man’s will and God’s will. Man’s will is contingent upon circumstance, whereas God’s will does not depend on anything. He declares “the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure” (Isa 46:10). This is the “will of God” referred to in passages such as Acts 13:36, Romans 1:10 and Romans 15:32. But there is something else that is designated the “will of God” in the Scripture, which is akin to the second meaning for man’s will, namely His precepts, especially as contained in His Word. This is the “will of God” referred to in passages such as 1 Thessalonians 5:18, Romans 12:2 and Mark 3:35. We may call this God’s “preceptive will,” but we must remember that it is of totally different nature from His “decretive will.” In God’s decrees, He determines and brings to pass all things according to His wisdom, whereas in His precepts He commands us as to what our duties towards Him are.
What is the will of God referred to in the third petition? Well, I believe it primarily refers to God’s precepts, so that it is a prayer that ourselves and others will be obedient to God’s Word and ordinances (such as God’s call through His church to serve Him). But in all likelihood, the Lord is also referring to the outworking of God’s decrees so that it is a prayer that we will humbly submit to God’s providential dealings with us. Just as the prayer “hallowed be thy name” is also a prayer that God will cause us to glorify Himself, so “thy will be done” is also a prayer that God will make us submissive to His will, both as He reveals in providence (so we acquiesce) and as He reveals in His Word (so we obey).