I've heard people talk about the Decretive, the Preceptive, and the Permissive wills of God, but I don't entirely understand them. What do they mean and what makes them distinct from each other?

2 Answers 2


The decretive will of God is where God decrees what definitely will happen. For example, if God decrees that Jesus Christ will return in judgment, then that will definitely happen.

The preceptive will of God is where God gives us a precept. This is how we see what God desires us to do. For example, all of the Ten Commandments show us the preceptive will of God. The difference is that while God tells us to obey the Ten Commandments, He doesn't decree that we will definitely obey them, thus "permitting" our disobedience.

Charles Hodge, in his Systematic Theology, says the following:

The decretive will of God concerns his purposes, and relates to the futurition of events. The preceptive will relates to the rule of duty for his rational creatures. He decrees whatever he purposes to effect or to permit. He prescribes, according to his own will, what his creatures should do, or abstain from doing. The decretive and preceptive will of God can never be in conflict. God never decrees to do, or to cause others to do, what He forbids. He may, as we see He does, decree to permit what He forbids. He permits men to sin, although sin is forbidden. This is more scholastically expressed by the theologians by saying, A positive decretive will cannot consist with a negative preceptive will; i.e., God cannot decree to make men sin. But a negative decretive will may consist with an affirmative preceptive will; e.g., God may command men to repent and believe, and yet, for wise reasons, abstain from giving them repentance.

Preceptive will, permissive will, and passive will are synonymous. Decretive will, sovereign will, and active will are synonymous.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism questions and answers 7 and 39 say the following:

Q. 7. What are the decrees of God?

A. The decrees of God are, his eternal purpose, according to the counsel of his will, whereby, for his own glory, he hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass

Q. 39. What is the duty which God requireth of man?

A. The duty which God requireth of man, is obedience to his revealed will.

Q&A 7 describes the decretive will of God. Q&A 39 describes the preceptive will of God (more or less).

It is worth noting that in Reformed theology, there is only one will of God. However, the word "will" has two meanings, and thus there is the will of God in the definition of will whereby God ordains something and causes it to come to pass, and the will of God in the definition of will whereby God requires and commands something of mankind.

  • 1
    There is also the desiderative will of God.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Dec 11, 2017 at 8:19
  • 1
    Is the desiderative will of God any different from His preceptive will in Reformed theology? If the desiderative will of God is that which is revealed but not explicit then it is by good and necessary consequence derived from Scripture, and thus has as much force as a precept.
    – Birdie
    Commented Dec 11, 2017 at 8:23
  • 1
    The main example I've seen of the desiderative will is that God wants all to be saved (in some sense at least). This is obviously very different from decreeing that all to be saved, and also from his precepts that we repent of our sin and honour him.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Dec 11, 2017 at 8:28
  • 1
    @curiousdannii I disagree that it is different from His preceptive will. If God expresses a desire that all be saved, this is not different than commanding that all be saved. I understand there are a few Reformed theologians that have tried to add it as a distinction but it is not the "standard" Reformed view on the will of God.
    – Birdie
    Commented Dec 11, 2017 at 8:39
  • We can discuss it further in chat if you prefer, but here is fine as well.
    – Birdie
    Commented Dec 11, 2017 at 8:40

I would follow D A Carson in rejecting the idea that the Decalogue per se was prescriptive for the New Covenant (Sabbath & the Lord's Day). I'd also divide decretive will into a strong and a weak: the strong would include Christ's return (an unalterable to be); the weak would include human sovereignty (sovereignly bestowed by, and respected by, God), and allow that he can decree to damn us, but on a fixed principle repent if we repent of our evil, or could decree to bless us, but on a fixed principle repent if we repent of our good (Jr.18): an alterable to be. There is more to heaven & earth than our philosophy.

  • Welcome to Christianity SE and thank you for your contribution. When you get a chance, please take the tour to understand how the site works and how it is different than others.
    – agarza
    Commented Jul 10, 2021 at 20:01
  • It would be helpful if you would provide a link or reference to a published work that backs up what you think. Also, if you would let us know who D.A. Carson is.
    – Lesley
    Commented Jul 14, 2021 at 7:32

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .