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A MAN'S WILL is his organ for decision-making. To want or not to want, to choose or not to choose are the typical operations of the will. It is his "helm" by which he sails upon the sea of life.
The will of a man can be taken as his real self, for it truthfully represents him. Its action is the action of the man. When we declare "I will," it is actually our volition which wills. When we say "I want, I decide," again it is our volition which wants and decides. Our volition acts for the entire man. Our emotion merely expresses how we feel; our mind simply tells us what we think; but our will communicates what we want. Hence, it is the most influential component of our entire person. It is deeper than emotion and mind. So in seeking spiritual growth the believer must not neglect the volitional element in him.
Many commit the error of treating "religion" as a matter of emotion; they believe that it merely soothes and gladdens men’s emotions. Others insist that "religion" ought to be compatible with reason and not overly emotional; only a kind of rational religion is acceptable to these. What both these groups do not know is that true religion per se does not aim at emotion or reason but aims to impart life to man’s spirit and to lead his will to be completely yielded to God’s will. Unless our "religious" experience produces in us a willing acceptance of the whole counsel of God, it is very superficial. What can it profit a man if along his spiritual pathway the will exhibits no proper sign of grace? Or if the will is not touched?
True and perfect salvation saves man’s will. Whatever is not sufficiently thorough to embrace the salvation of man’s volition is but vanity. All pleasant feelings and all lucid thoughts belong exclusively to the external realm. Man may experience joy, comfort and peace in believing God, he may understand His majesty and amass much wonderful knowledge; but does he possess any genuine union with Him if his will is not united with God’s? The joining of wills forms the only true union. Consequently, upon receiving life the believer should be attentive not only to his intuition but likewise to his volition.
A Free Will
In discussing man and his will we particularly should bear in mind that he exercises a free will. This means that man is sovereign, that he has a sovereign will. What he disapproves of should not be forced on him, what he opposes should not be coerced. Free will signifies that man can choose what he wants. He is not a mechanical toy to be run by others. He is responsible for all his actions; the will within controls all matters both inside and outside him. He is not governed automatically by an external force; rather, he houses a principle within him which determines his acts.
This was the state of man when created by God. The man the Creator fashioned was not something mechanical; for it will be recalled that God said to him: "You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die" (Gen. 2.16-17). How did God command him? God persuaded, prohibited, yet never coerced. If Adam were disposed to listen and not eat the forbidden fruit, it would be Adam who so willed. But if he would not listen and would eat, even God would not restrain him. That is free will. God put this responsibility of eating or not eating upon man for him to choose according to his untrammeled will. God did not create an Adam who was incapable of sinning, rebelling or stealing, since to have done so would have been to make man into a piece of machinery. God could advise, prohibit and command; however, the responsibility of hearing or not lay with man. Out of love, God gave the command beforehand; out of righteousness, he would not force man to do what the latter did not wish to do. For man to obey God, it requires a willingness on his part, because God never compels him. He could verily employ sundry means to make man willing; nevertheless, until he gives his consent God will not make His way into the man.
This is an exceedingly vital principle. We shall see later how the Creator never works against this principle, whereas the evil spirits consistently do. By this can we distinguish what is of God and what is not.
The Fall and Salvation
Unfortunately, mankind has fallen. By this plunge man’s unfettered volition suffered prodigious damage. We may say that there are two massive contradictory wills throughout the universe. On the one side stands the holy and perfect will of God; on the other is arrayed the defiled, defiling and opposing will of Satan. In between subsists the sovereign, independent, free will of man. When man listens to the devil and rebels against God he seems to render an eternal "no" to God’s will and an abiding "yes" to Satan’s. Since man employs his volition to choose the will of the devil, his volition falls captive to the devil. Therefore all his acts are governed by Satan’s will. Until he overturns his early subjection, mad s will remains unquestionably oppressed by the enemy power.
In this fallen position and condition man is fleshly. This flesh—by which his will, together with his other organs, is ruled—is thoroughly corrupted. How can anything pleasing to God ever result from such a darkened will? Even his questing after God springs from the realm of the flesh and therefore lacks any spiritual value. He may invent many ways of worshiping God at this time, yet all are his own ideas, all are "will-worship" (Col. 2.23 ASV), totally unacceptable to Him.
Let us realize, then, that except a man receive God’s new life and serve Him therein, every bit of service for God is but the work of the flesh. His intention to serve and even to suffer for Him is vain. Before he is regenerated, his will, even though it may be inclined towards good and God, is futile. For it is not what fallen man intends to do for God but how He Himself wishes man to do for Him that really counts in God’s eyes. Man may devise and initiate countless notable works for God; nonetheless, if they do not originate with God they are nothing more than will-worship.
This is true with respect to salvation. When man lives carnally even his desire to be saved is not acceptable to God. We read in the Gospel of John that "to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God" (1.12-13). Man is not regenerated because he wills it so. He must be born of God. Nowadays Christians entertain the incorrect concept that if anyone wishes to be saved and seeks the way of life he undoubtedly will be a good disciple of Christ, for nothing can be better than this desire. God nonetheless affirms that in this matter of regeneration as well as in all other matters related to Him, the will of man is totally nonefficacious.
Many children of God cannot understand why John 1 asserts the will of man to be noneffective whereas Revelation concludes by saying, "Let him who desires take the water of life without price" (22.17), as though man himself is entirely responsible for his salvation. And does not the Lord Jesus Himself give as explanation for the Jews not being saved the following declaration: "You refuse to come to me that you may have life" (John 5.40) ? Here again, the responsibility for perdition apparently rests on man’s will. Can the Bible be contradicting itself? Is there any special meaning behind these apparent inconsistencies? A comprehension of this matter will help us to appreciate what God requires of us in our Christian life.
We will recall that God wishes no one to "perish but that all should reach repentance" because He "desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (2 Peter 3.9; 1 Tim. 2.4). No problem arises concerning whom God wants to save or whom He will let perish. The problem before us is, rather, what is the sinner’s attitude towards God’s will? If he decides to be a Christian because he is naturally inclined towards "religion," naturally contemptuous of the world or naturally influenced by his heredity, environment or family, he is as far from God and His life as are other sinners. If the sinner chooses to be a Christian at the moment of excitement or enthusiasm, he may not fare better than the rest. It all reduces itself to this: what is his attitude towards God’s will? God loves him, but will he accept this love? Christ calls him, but will he come? The Holy Spirit wants to give him life, but is he willing to be born? His will is useful only in choosing God’s will. The question now is, and solely is, how does his volition react towards God’s will?
Have we noticed the difference here? If man himself commences the search for salvation, he is yet perishing. Various founders of religions belong to this category. But if man, upon hearing the gospel, is willing to accept what God offers to him, he shall be saved. In the one case, man originates; in the other, he receives. The one does the willing himself while the other accepts God’s will. John 1 speaks of man himself willing, whereas John 5 and Revelation 22 refer to man’s accepting God’s will. Hence no contradiction exists between these two; rather is there a very crucial lesson for us to learn.
God is instructing us that in such a paramount and excel- lent matter as salvation anything which proceeds from self cannot be accepted but is rejected by Him. Indeed. if we wish to advance in our spiritual development we must understand and bear in mind every vital principle God used in dealing with us at the time of regeneration. These initial principles betoken how we ought to continue in our spiritual life. What we have just now discussed constitutes one of the greatest of these principles. Anything which issues from us, that is from our flesh, is utterly unacceptable to God. Even should we seek such an indispensable and sublime a matter as salvation, our pursuit is nonetheless rejected. What we need unceasingly to remember is that God looks not at the appearance of a thing—whether good or bad, big or small—but looks instead to see whence it originates, from Him or not. In salvation, we are saved not because we want to be saved but because God wants to save us; and so is it to be throughout our lives. We need to see that aside from what God does through us, all other activities, however commendable they may be, are utterly nonefficacious. If we fail to learn this life principle at the initial stage of salvation, we shall encounter endless defeats thereafter.
Moreover, according to the actual condition of man, while he is a sinner his will is rebellious against God. Therefore God must bring men to Himself as well as grant him new life. Now just as the will of man represents the man—for it is the essence of his being, so the divine will personifies God—it being His very life. To say that God will bring man to Himself is to say that He will bring man to His will. No doubt this takes a lifetime to fulfill, but even at the outset of salvation God commences working towards that end. Hence when the Holy Spirit convicts a man of sin, that conviction is such that the man would not have a word to say even should God condemn him to hell. Then when that man is shown by God His definite plan in the cross of Christ he will gladly accept it and express his readiness to receive the salvation of God. Thus do we observe that the first stage of salvation is essentially a salvation of the will. A sinner’s faith and acceptance is but his desire to take the water of life and be saved. Similarly his opposition and resistance are his unwillingness to come to the Lord for life, and accordingly he perishes. The battle whether to be saved or to perish is fought out in the will of man. Man’s original fall was due to the rebellion of his will against God’s; and so his present salvation is effected by having his volition brought into obedience to God.
Although at the moment of new birth man’s will is not yet fully united with God, his fallen will nonetheless is uplifted through his acceptance of the Lord Jesus and his denial of Satan, self, and the world. By believing God’s Word and receiving His Spirit, his will is also renewed. After a man is born anew he obtains a new spirit, a new heart, and a new life; his will receives a new master and is henceforth under new management. If his will is obedient it becomes a part of the new life; if it resists, it turns out to be a formidable enemy to the new life.
This renewed will is much more vital than the other parts of the soul. A mind may be misled and emotion can be inordinate, but the will can ill-afford to be wrong. For it to be wrong brings in serious consequences, since it is man’s very self and controls all other organs of man. If it is wrong, God’s will cannot be realized.
A Submissive Will
What is salvation? It is none other than God saving man out of himself into Himself. Salvation has two facets: a cutting off and a uniting with. What is cut off is self; the uniting is with God. Whatever does not aim at deliverance from self and union with Him is not genuine salvation. Anything which cannot save man from self and join him to God is vanity. A true spiritual beginning involves release from animal life and entry into divine life. Everything belonging to the created one must be relinquished so that the created one will enjoy all things solely in the Creator. The created one must vanish in order that true salvation may be manifested. Real greatness rests not on how much we have but on how much we have lost. Authentic life can be seen only in the abandonment of self. If the nature, life and activities of the created one are not denied, the life of God has no way to express itself. Our "self" is often the enemy of God’s life. Our spiritual growth shall be stunted severely if we have no intention nor experience of losing ourselves.
What is self? That is extremely difficult to answer, nor can our answer be fully correct. But were we to say "self" is "self-will," we would not be too far from the mark. Man’s essence is in his volition because it expresses what man fundamentally is, desires, and is willing for. Before God’s grace has done its work in man all which a man has, whether he be sinner or saint, is generally contrary to God. It is because man belongs to the natural, which is exceedingly antithetical to God’s life.
Salvation, then, is to deliver man from his created, natural, animal, fleshly, and self-emanating will. Let us make a special note of this: that aside from God giving us a new life, the turning of our will to Him is the greatest work in salvation. We may even say that God imparts new life in order for us to abandon our will to Him. The gospel is to facilitate the union of our will with God. Anything short of this is failure of the mission. God aims his arrow of salvation not so much at our emotion or our mind but at our will, for once the latter is saved, the rest are included. Man may be united with God in mind to a certain degree; he may agree with Him in his feeling towards numerous things; but the most consequential and most perfect union is that of his will with the divine will. This accord embraces all other unions between God and man. Anything short of the union of wills is inadequate. Since our total being moves according to our will, it is obvious that it constitutes the most influential part of man. Even so noble an organ as the spirit must yield to the rule of the will. (We shall enlarge on this subsequently). The spirit does not symbolize the whole man, for it is but his organ for communication with God. The body cannot stand for man either, because it is only his apparatus by which to communicate with the world. But the will embodies man’s authentic attitude, intention and condition. It is the mechanism in him that most nearly corresponds to the man himself. Now unless this will is united with God, all other unions are shallow and empty. Once this ruling will of man is joined completely to God, the man is spontaneously and fully submissive to Him.
Our union with the Lord has two steps: the union of life and the union of will. We are united with Him in life at the time we are regenerated and receive His life. As He lives by His Spirit so shall we thereafter live by the Holy Spirit. This is the bond of life. It indicates we share one life with God. This uniting is an internal one. But what expresses that life is the will; consequently there needs to be an external union, one of the will. To be joined with the Lord in will simply denotes that we have one will with Him. These two unions are related, neither is independent of the other. The one of new life is spontaneous, for this new life is the life of God; but the one of will is neither so simple nor spontaneous because our will is clearly our self.
As we have remarked before, God intends to destroy the life of the soul but not its function; so upon being joined with the Lord in life, He launches forth to renew our soul with its various parts in order that our soul may be one with our new life and consequently one with His will. Our will being what it is, God of course daily seeks its union with His will. Salvation cannot be complete until man’s will is united entirely with God’s. Without that perfect bond man’s self is yet at odds with Him. He wants us to have His life, but He also wants us to be united with Him. Since our will most closely represents us, our union with Got cannot be complete without the joining of our will to Him.
A careful reading of the Scriptures will yield the fact that a common denominator underlies all our sins: the principle of disobedience. Through Adam’s disobedience we perish; through the obedience of Christ we are saved. Formerly we were sons of disobedience; today God wants us to be sons of obedience. Disobedience means to follow one’s own will; obedience means to follow God’s will. The purpose of divine salvation is to encourage us to deny our will and be united with Him. Right there lies a big mistake among modern Christians. They envisage spirituality to be joyous feeling or profound knowledge. They spend time craving various sensations or questing after mental knowledge of the Bible, for they regard these as highly superior. Meanwhile, acting upon their feelings and thoughts, they go about performing many good, grand and notable tasks which they believe must be quite pleasing to God. They do not comprehend, however, that He asks not how they feel or reason; He only seeks the union of their wills with His. His delight is in having His people desire what He desires and do what He says. Except for a believer’s unconditional surrender to God with the believer disposed to accept His will entirely, all else which is labeled spirituality—such as holy and happy feelings or prize-winning thoughts—is but an outward show. Even visions, dreams, voices, sighings, zeal, work, activity, and toil are external. Unless the believer is determined in his volition to finish the course God has set before him, nothing is of any worth.
If we are really united with God in will, we shall cease at once every activity which emerges from ourselves. Hereafter there can be no independent action. We are dead to self but alive to God. No longer do we act for Him under our impulse and according to our way. We act solely after we are moved by God. We are set free from every motion of self. Such union, in other words, is a change of center, a new beginning. In the past all activities focused on self and began with it; today everything is of God. He does not ask the nature of whatever we start; He simply inquires who started it. God discounts every element not yet freed from self, no matter how good it may appear to be.
The Hand of God
Because many believers are saved but not absolutely yielded to God’s will, He uses many ways to effect obedience. He moves His own by His Spirit and touches them with His love that they may obey Him alone, desiring nothing outside His will. But often these do not produce the desired attitude in His children. God consequently must use His hand to lead them to where He desires them to be. His hand is seen primarily in environment. God lays His hand heavily on His people to crush, to break, or to bind—that their wills may be hardened no more against Him.
The Lord is not satisfied until we are thoroughly united with Him in will. To achieve that end He permits many disagreeable things to come to us. He lets us grieve, groan, and suffer. He arranges for many practical crosses to traverse our path that through them we may bow our heads and capitulate. Our volition is naturally exceedingly stubborn; it refuses to obey God until it is heavily disciplined. By submitting ourselves under His mighty hand, willingly accepting His discipline, our will experiences one more cut and is once again delivered to death. And if we continue to resist Him, greater affliction awaits us to bring us into subjection.
God purposes to strip all that is ours away. All believers, after they are truly regenerated, conceive the notion of observing the will of God. Some openly promise such; others secretly entertain this idea. To prove and see whether this promise or thought is real or not, God puts His children through various unpleasant strippings. He causes them to lose material things: health, fame, position, usefulness. What is more, He even causes them to be deprived of joyous feeling, burning desire, the presence and comfort of God. He must show them that everything except His will must be denied. If it is God’s will, they should be willing to accept pain and suffering upon their physical bodies. They must be ready to embrace dryness, darkness, and coldness if He seems pleased to so treat them. Even if He should strip them of everything, of even so-called spiritual effectiveness, they must accept it. He wishes His own to know that He saves them not for their enjoyment but for His Own will. In gain or loss, joy or sorrow, consciousness of His presence or that of His rejection, Christians must contemplate God’s will alone. Suppose it were His will to reject us (which it never is), could we gladly accept rejection? When a sinner first trusts in the Lord his objective is heaven. This is permissible during that particular period for him. After he has been taught in God, however, he knows that he has come to believe in Him solely for the sake of His will. Even if, by believing, he were to end up in hell, he would still believe in God. He is no longer mindful of his own gain or loss. If his going to hell would glorify God, he is ready for that. Obviously this is but a hypothetical case. Yet Christians must understand that they live on earth not for themselves but for His will. Their greatest blessing, highest privilege and supreme glory lies in rejecting their corrupt volition of flesh and blood in order that they may be united with God’s volition for the accomplishment of His heart’s desire. The gain or loss, glory or shame, joy or pain of the created one is nothing to be concerned about. If only the Highest can be satisfied, it matters not to what degree the humble be brought down. This is the only way for believers to lose themselves in God!
Two measures are necessary in being joined to God in will. The first is for God to subdue the activities of our will; the second is to conquer the life of our will. Quite often our volition is subservient to the Lord only in a number of particular matters, which nonetheless prompts us to think that we are fully obedient to Him. Down within us, however, hides a secret tendency which shall rise to the surface when the opportunity is provided. God’s intent is not merely to curtail the movement of our will but also to smash its inner tendency so that its very quality seems to be transformed. Strictly speaking, an obedient will and a harmonious one are very different: obedience is related to activity whereas harmony is related to life, nature and tendency. The obedient will of a servant is seen in his executing ev0ery order of his master, but the son who knows the father’s heart and whose will is one with the father’s not only fulfills his duty but fulfills it with delight as well. An obedient will puts a stop to one’s own activity, yes, but a harmonious will is in addition one heart with God. Only those who are in harmony with Him can actually appreciate his heart. If a person has not arrived at this perfect harmony between his own and God’s will, he has yet to experience the summit of spiritual life. To be obedient to the Lord is indeed good, but when grace completely conquers the natural life the Christian will be fully attuned to Him. As a matter of fact, the union of wills is the zenith of anyone’s spiritual walk.
Numerous saints conclude they already have lost their wills entirely. Nothing could be farther from reality. When the moment of temptation and trial comes they will discover that an obedient will is not the same as a harmonious one, that nonresistance does not necessarily mean no will of their own self. Who is there who does not care for a little gain, who does not withhold a little something for himself? Who really desires no gold or silver, honor, freedom, joy, advantage, position or whatever? One may think he cares nothing for these items; while he has them he may not be conscious of their hold upon him; but let him be on the verge of losing them, and he shall soon discover how tenaciously he wants to hold on to them. An obedient will may agree with God’s will on many occasions, but at some time or other there is bound to be a mighty struggle between the life of the believer’s will and the will of God. Unless His grace realizes its fullest work, the saint can hardly overcome.
Obviously from this an obedient will cannot be viewed as perfection. The volition, though broken and deprived of the strength to resist God, has yet to achieve concord with Him. We of course acknowledge that to arrive at the point of being powerless to resist God is itself the fruit of His great grace. And ordinarily we say that an obedient will is already dead in itself. Yet strictly speaking it still possesses a thread of life which is unbroken. There continues to be a hidden tendency, a secret admiring of the former way of life. That is why on certain occasions it finds itself less joyful, less ardent and less diligent in obeying the Lord than at other times. While the will of God is in fact obeyed, there nevertheless remains a difference in personal like and dislike. Had the life of self genuinely and completely been consigned to death, the attitude of the believer towards every part of the will of God would be exactly the same. Any disparity in speed, feeling and effort shows a lack of concord in one’s will towards God’s will.
We may illustrate these two conditions of the will by citing Lot’s wife, the Israelites, and the prophet Balaam. The departure from Sodom of the wife of Lot, the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, and the blessing of Israel by Balaam can all be regarded as obeying the will of God. All these were men and women subdued by the Lord, not following their own opinions; even so, their inward tendencies were not harmonious with Him; hence every one of them ended in failure. How frequently the direction of our footsteps is correct but our secret heart differs with God. And so we ultimately fall.
The Way to Surmount
God never obeys us. He is pleased with nothing but with our obeying Him, that is, obeying his will. However noble, grand and indispensable a thing may be, it cannot be substituted for His will. What He desires us to do is His will. He does it Himself and requires us to do the same. From His view He sees nothing except corruption wherever man’s self is present. If acts are performed under the guidance of the Holy Spirit they are good and profitable; but if the same acts are performed by man alone their value is greatly diminished. Consequently the cardinal point is not man’s intention nor the nature of the thing, but purely the will of God. This is the first point to keep in mind.
Let us next inquire how man’s will can be attuned to God’s. How can man effect the transfer from having self-will as his center to having the will of God as his center? It all hinges on the natural life. The measure of our being unshackled from the control of the soul life determines the measure of our union with God, for nothing hinders that union more than the energy of the soul. The more the soul’s vitality is crushed the more our will centers on God. The new life in us inclines towards Him, but it is suppressed by the old life of the soul. Committing the soul life to death is therefore the way to mount the peak of spirituality.
The man outside God is lost and the thing outside God is vain. Whatever is outside God comes from the flesh. Any strength or thought other than His is accursed. The believer must deny his own strength as well as his own pleasure. He should disregard himself completely in every respect. Let him do nothing for himself but trust God in all matters. Let him proceed step by step according to His way, waiting for His time, and fulfilling His conditions. Let him receive willingly from God his strength, wisdom, righteousness, and work. Let him acknowledge God as the source of all things. Thus shall harmony be attained.
How this indeed is the "narrow gate" and the hard way! It is narrow and hard because God’s will must be the standard for each footstep. It has but one rule: make no provision for self. The least deviation from this rule shall take man out of the way. Nevertheless it is not impossible, for as the soul life is lost by its habits, tastes, desires and longings being gradually broken, there shall remain no more resistance to the Lord. How lamentable that so many Christians have never passed through this gate and walked along this path; while others may have entered, yet do not patiently walk thereafter. Regardless how long or how short that difficult period may be, this alone is the way of life. This is God’s gate and God’s way. It is true and secure. Anyone who esteems the abundant life must become its pedestrian.